Kevin Cooper

and ending the death penalty in California


Kevin Cooper, Pat Foley, Jack Bryson and Crystal Bybee at San Quentin’s death row
By: Crystal Bybee

“The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man.” You would expect to hear this statement from activists such as myself. But this statement was made by five judges of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on May 11, 2009.

They were referring to Kevin Cooper, who has been on death row in California for the past 25 years. Kevin will likely be one of the first people to be executed if the state of California restarts the death machine.

Many readers of the New Abolitionist are familiar with Kevin’s case. The Bay Area chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty has been working with Kevin for the past 10 years, coordinating, “Live from Death Row” events, organizing protests to his execution dates and calling for Kevin to have a new trial.

The case has a long history of police and prosecutorial misconduct, evidence tampering, and constitutional violations. 

Kevin Cooper was wrongfully convicted of the 1983 murders of the Ryen family and a house guest. Four people were killed and a fifth was severely wounded, with multiple weapons. The boy who survived was badly injured, but was able to communicate to police that three white men killed his family.

The police found out that Kevin had walked away from a minimum-security prison where he was doing time for burglary, and he happened to have stayed in a house near the Ryens. Once they found that out, they had their man. Kevin was poor, Black and in the wrong place at the wrong time.

They ignored evidence pointing to other suspects. The instances are too numerous to list in full. Here are a few examples: A woman came and told the police that her boyfriend, a white supremacist gang member and convicted murderer, came to her house covered in blood on the night of the murders. She turned a pair of his blood-spattered coveralls over to the sheriff as evidence.

The coveralls were destroyed, with approval from a supervisor. Reports from different witnesses at a bar nearby identified multiple white men in bloody clothes on the night of the murder. Witnesses also reported multiple white people driving a car nearby matching the Ryen’s car. A prisoner even confessed to his cellmate that he had committed the crime.

Racism was also used to help convict Kevin. Racist demonstrations were held outside the courtroom, where stuffed gorillas were hung in effigy, and there were signs saying, “Hang the Nigger” and “Hang Kevin the Ape.”

Racist graffiti was displayed around the courthouse during court proceedings. Jurors were allowed to stay on the jury even when they had been exposed to highly prejudicial press reports. 

How did they convict Kevin? Police and prosecutors tampered with and mishandled evidence, presented false evidence at trial, destroyed evidence before the jury could see it, and withheld exonerating evidence from the defense prior to the trial.

The state claims that there was overwhelming evidence of Kevin’s guilt. But in fact, there was not. Jurors stated that had there been one less piece of evidence, they would not have convicted him. If the jury had known that the evidence was a lie, or if they knew about the evidence that was hidden from them, I fully believe that they would not have convicted Kevin.

How have they kept Kevin on death row for 25 years? One way is continual tampering with evidence. There is plenty of proof of this, yet the courts have ignored it.

After Kevin received a stay of execution in 2004, his case was sent back down to federal district court. Judge Marilyn Huff managed to block  defense’s efforts to prove tampering.

Just one example is that when the test for preservatives (which would have proved tampering) came back in Kevin’s favor, the state withdrew those results! Proving her bias over and over, Huff ultimately ruled against Kevin, and the courts have let that ruling stand.

Executions are on hold in California right now because of how Stanley Tookie Williams and other executed prisoners were tortured. The state is revamping (without fundamentally changing) its lethal injection protocol.

Political figures hope to restart executions. California wants to make Kevin Cooper one of the first people it kills. Kevin was turned down in an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court last year. Without the moratorium, state officials would be moving to execute him now.

The weight of the state is pressing in on Kevin, and pressing in on over 700 others on California’s death row. Kevin has long said that this fight is about more than him—it is about unlawful brutality. He’s right. We have to stop this machinery of death from starting up again in California.

Please visit savekevincooper.org to sign petitions to California Attorney General Jerry Brown and to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, calling for an investigation into the violation of Kevin’s civil and constitutional rights.

Please contact me at crystal@nodeathpenalty.org or 510-333-7966. We need your help.