The Railroad of Kevin Cooper: From Police Frame-Up to Death Row

Revolutionary Worker#1230, February 22, 2004, posted at

February 9, 2004. Kevin Cooper sat in the anteroom of the death chamber. Convicted of the 1983 murders of four people in southern California's San Bernardino County, his execution was scheduled for one minute past midnight on February 10. Outside, in the courts and on the streets, people were fighting for his life.

Six of the jurors who originally convicted Cooper sent letters to Governor Schwarzenegger, asking him to halt the execution. One of them wrote, "There are just too many unanswered questions." These jurors said that if they'd been shown at trial all the evidence that's now been uncovered, they wouldn't have voted to convict Cooper, let alone have imposed the death penalty.

Full-page ads asking, "Does the state of California have the wrong man?" were published in major California newspapers, signed by hundreds of people, including Denzel Washington, Sean Penn, James Cromwell, Ruben "Hurricane" Carter, former Illinois governor George Ryan, Jesse Jackson, dozens of members of the California legislature, anti-death penalty activists, clergy, six labor leaders, and nine members of the European Parliament.

Mainstream newspapers published editorials, one titled "An Appeal for Justice," calling for a delay in the execution so that new evidence could be examined.

Rallies in support of Cooper were held around the state.

Still, the governor denied Cooper a clemency hearing, saying he saw no reason to doubt his guilt or spare his life.

Then, the day before the scheduled execution, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a stay, saying, "No person should be executed if there is a doubt about his or her guilt."

One of the judges wrote, "When the stakes are so high, when the evidence against Cooper is so weak, and when the newly discovered evidence of the state's malfeasance and misfeasance is so compelling, there is no reason to hurry and every reason to find out the truth."

Determined to go ahead with this execution, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the stay, calling any delay "an unwarranted intrusion into a case that has been the subject of 18 years of appeals."

On February 9, mere hours before midnight, the U.S. Supreme Court by a unanimous vote refused to lift the stay. In a rather stunning reversal of a nearly 40-year record, a California execution was delayed by the courts due to a last-minute appeal.


In 1983 Kevin Cooper was serving time for robbery in a minimum-security prison in Chino, California. One night he escaped, making his way through fields and down country roads to an unoccupied house across the road from the Ryen home. He hid out there for a few days.

Two days after Kevin's escape, Doug and Peg Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, and her 11- year-old friend, Christopher Hughes, were murdered in their home. Josh Ryen, 8 years old at the time, had his throat slit but survived. He told paramedics, his nurses and police that three white or Mexican men with long blonde hair had committed the crime. But when local police learned that Cooper, an African-American with an Afro, had escaped prison just days before the murders, he became the primary suspect. Within days and without pursuing other compelling leads, police charged Cooper with the murders. When Josh Ryen saw Cooper on TV, he told police, "That's not the person who did it."

From the very beginning, Kevin Cooper has maintained his innocence. From the very beginning, the police and the prosecution team handling this case have said they had the murderer, and that they had the evidence to prove it.

But in fact, police and prosecutors ignored, withheld, hid, destroyed, and possibly tampered with any evidence or leads that didn't fit the case they were manufacturing against Kevin Cooper.

The state's case against Kevin Cooper has always been full of holes, but now, within the past few weeks, breathtaking developments have suggested cold murderous state determination to carry out a deliberate frame-up.

Damning Evidence of a Possible Frame-up

A new legal team, led by Lanny Davis (former Special Counsel to ex-president Bill Clinton) has documented a sewer of prosecutorial misconduct, including withheld evidence in the Kevin Cooper case. Some of the more glaring examples:

How often in American history has a Black man been seized, and then killed, in a frame-up to cover up someone else's crime? And how long will can we allow such things to still go on?

None of this came out at Kevin's trial. What did come out was a racist atmosphere fueled by a thirst for revenge.

Outside his preliminary hearing, people hung an effigy of a monkey in a noose with a sign reading, "Hang the N*gger!" During the trial, jurors were greeted with graffiti declaring, "Kevin Cooper Must Be Hanged!"

Even with all that, the jurors barely convicted Cooper, after agonizing for days.


At a February 13 press conference in Los Angeles, actor/activist Mike Farrell announced that the California Attorney General had mounted a second appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Attorney General is now arguing that there should not be a stay of execution based on new evidence, even if such evidence can prove innocence. And he asserts that such a stay based on new evidence would be a violation of the Effective Death Penalty Act, signed by President Clinton in 1996.

Just take a moment--to think over the incredible injustice of such an argument, and of the "Effective Death Penalty Act" that backs such arguments.

At this moment, there is still a stay in the execution. But Kevin Cooper also still sits on Death Row and the outcome of this struggle remains unclear. The state's railroad is pressing ahead, the courts will consider whether to grant a new trial, and a determined movement has taken shape to prevent this state murder.