Will California Execute an Innocent Man?

Written by Mary Shaw

Kevin Cooper sits on California’s death row at San Quentin. He was convicted of a quadruple murder back in 1983. Cooper has always denied any involvement with the murders. But a lot of prisoners claim they are innocent, whether or not they really are. So let’s take a look at some facts of the case.

The sole survivor of the murders, Joshua Ryen, told the police that the murderers were three white men. Cooper is black. And Ryen repeatedly told police that Cooper was not involved in the murders.

Several weapons were linked to the crime, suggesting multiple killers, but prosecutors contended that Cooper was working alone. That suggests, as noted by Nicholas Kristof in a recent New York Times column, the unlikely case that “one intruder juggling several weapons overpower[ed] five victims, including a 200-pound former Marine like Doug Ryen, who also had a loaded rifle nearby.”

And then there is this troubling account by Ninth Circuit Court Judge William A. Fletcher, in a lecture at the Gonzaga University School of Law. Fletcher was among five judges who had dissented the Ninth Circuit’s decision to deny Cooper’s appeal:

“On June 9, a woman named Diana Roper called the Sheriff’s Department to tell them that her boyfriend, Lee Furrow, had come home in the early hours on the night of June 4. He arrived in an unfamiliar station wagon with some people who stayed in the car. He changed out of his overalls, which he left on the floor of a closet. He was not wearing a t-shirt that he had been wearing earlier in the day. He left the house after about five minutes and did not return. Roper called her father the next day to come look at the overalls. They both concluded that the overalls were spattered with blood. Roper turned the overalls over to the Sheriff’s Department and told the deputy that she thought Furrow was involved in the murders. Roper later provided an affidavit stating that a bloody t-shirt found beside the road leading from the murder house had been Furrow’s. It was a Fruit-of-the-Loom t-shirt with a breast pocket. Roper stated that she recognized it because she had bought it for him. She also stated that a bloody hatchet found beside the road matched a hatchet that was now missing from her garage.

“Furrow had been released from state prison a year earlier. He had been part of a murderous gang, but had been given a short sentence in return for turning state’s evidence against the leader of the gang. The leader was sentenced to death. Furrow told friends that while he was part of the gang he killed a girl, cut up her body, and thrown her body parts into the Kern River. The Sheriff’s Department never tested the overalls for blood, never turned them over to Cooper or his lawyers, and threw them away in a dumpster on the day of Cooper’s arraignment.”

Also, another prison inmate, Kenneth Koon, had confessed to his cellmate, Anthony Wisely, that he had committed the murders for which Cooper was convicted. Koon has since recanted his confession, but does it not call for a follow-up investigation just the same? (Rhetorical question, of course – unfortunately.)

All things considered, it appears to me that there is reasonable doubt as to Cooper’s guilt in this case. And there is no excuse to execute someone when there is reasonable doubt that you’ve got the right guy. Indeed, in his dissent from the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision against Cooper, Judge Fletcher stated, “The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man.”

Still, all of Cooper’s appeals have been denied, and his fate now rests with Governor Schwarzenegger.

Accordingly, there is a movement under way calling on Governor Schwarzenegger to commute Cooper’s death sentence before he leaves office. E-mail can be sent to the Governor via: http://gov.ca.gov/interact#email

Unfortunately, Schwarzenegger denied clemency for Cooper in 2004, saying that the state and federal courts had reviewed the case extensively and found that the evidence establishing Cooper’s guilt “is overwhelming.” But I contend that the evidence in Cooper’s favor is overwhelming as well.

I hope Governor Schwarzenegger will reconsider now and choose to err on the side of life, not death, in this case. He needn’t play the Terminator in real life too.

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About the author

Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views appear regularly in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites. Note that the ideas expressed here are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Amnesty International or any other organization with which she may be associated. E-mail: mary@maryshawonline.com