Jan. 30, 2012 Special to Crime Magazine
An excerpt from the recently released book Scapegoat: The Chino Hills Murders and the Framing of Kevin Cooper by J. Patrick O’Connor, editor of Crime Magazine. Published in January of 2012 by Strategic Media Books, Scapegoat is available at www.strategicmediabooks.com, Amazon.com, barnesandoble.com and other book sellers throughout the United States. Scapegoat won Silver in the 2013 Independent Publishers Book Awards for True Crime.
by J. Patrick O’Connor
During the fall of 2008, I was in the San Francisco Bay area on a book tour for The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal. The tour was arranged by Jeff Mackler, the executive director of the Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal, and it involved about fifteen speaking engagements at different venues. Jeff told me that supporters of death-row inmate Kevin Cooper – whom I had not heard of -- would be attending a number of these presentations, and that they would be asking me to write a book about Kevin’s case. Indeed, two of Cooper’s most dedicated supporters, Carole Seligman and Rebecca Doran, did just that.
Cooper had been convicted in 1985 of the brutal murders of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their ten-year-old daughter, Jessica, and eleven-year-old houseguest Christopher Hughes, and the attempted murder of the Ryens’ eight-year-old son Joshua.
Jeff had gotten to know Cooper over the years, and had visited him about twenty times. Kevin’s case was quite different from Mumia’s, he said, in the sense that Mumia is essentially a political prisoner and Kevin was anything but.
When I decided to begin researching the Kevin Cooper case in early 2009, I had no pre-conceived notions about his guilt or innocence. Each case is different, radically so. My first step was to read and notate the trial transcripts, documents of over eight-thousand pages. I then read all the police reports, witness interviews and various newspaper accounts. Finally, I read all of the appeals and the judicial rulings. By this time I was ready to begin interviewing various people involved in Cooper’s trial and his subsequent appeals.
One problem in researching a crime nearly twenty-five years after it occurred is that a number of key people involved in the investigation and trial have passed away or have retired or have simply forgotten important factual details. Another obstacle is that, because Cooper technically still has appeals open to him, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office refused to discuss the case.
During the summer of 2009, I made arrangements to interview Kevin Cooper in a visitor’s cell on death row at San Quentin. On several issues, particularly those regarding his criminal record previous to the Chino Hills trial, I found him protective and less than forthcoming. That was all behind him, he seemed to suggest.
On the other hand, I was taken by his equanimity and his resolve to prove he was wrongfully convicted of the gruesome Chino Hills murders. I could see that the many years he had spent on death row, instead of diminishing him, had turned him into a person worthy of the high regard that his supporters – and his attorneys at the Orrick law firm – felt for him. On death row, Kevin Cooper had finally grown up.
Contrary to popular belief, most of the nation’s more than three-thousand-five-hundred death row inmates do not profess innocence. In fact, unlike Kevin Cooper, very few do. For those who do, the road to exoneration is a long, slow trek that usually fails. But it does succeed occasionally. Since 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to resume executions, one-hundred-thirty-six death-row inmates have been exonerated. In the majority of those cases, the proof of the inmate’s innocence was so convincing that the prosecutor dropped the charges rather than retry the case. In forty-five cases where there was a retrial, the inmate was acquitted.
There are two things that do link the Mumia Abu-Jamal and Kevin Cooper cases: Each was prosecuted by a district attorney’s office hell bent on winning a death-penalty conviction; and neither defendant received a proper defense. What separates the two cases is that, while Mumia’s trial was a mockery of the justice system’s standards for a fair trial, Cooper’s trial had the trappings of fairness – but was lost long before the trial opened. Two pre-trial developments caused this outcome: The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department destroyed evidence that could have exonerated Cooper; and his public defender insisted on going it alone. Not many Davids actually slay Goliaths.
This then is a book about a gruesome murder case, painfully recounted; all quotes are from either documents or interviews I conducted doing my research. It is also a book about how justice can go astray. It is the true story of the Chino Hills murders, and the prosecution of Kevin Cooper, a prisoner who escaped once too often and found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Since 1985, he has been on death row at San Quentin asserting his innocence in failed-after-failed appeal while awaiting his execution.