California

California

New Podcast: Columnist Nicholas Kristof on "The Framing of Kevin Cooper"

In his May 20 column in the Sunday New York Times, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Nicholas Kristof (pictured, left) focused national attention on the troubling case of California death-row prisoner, Kevin Cooper (pictured, right) and the disturbing evidence suggesting that San Bernardino police planted blood and other evidence to frame him for murder. Kristof joined DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham for a Discussions with DPIC podcast to talk about his recent column, Was Kevin Cooper Framed for Murder?, and how police came to focus on a 155-pound Black man as the sole suspect in a grizzly quadruple murder, despite physical and eyewitness evidence pointing to three white men, including one already convicted murderer, as the perpetrators. Kristof explained how an opinion by a federal judge led him to write about the case: "What really struck me about [Cooper's case] was that you had a number of federal judges who not only argued that there was doubt about his innocence, but simply argued that, look, he is innocent, he is framed by the sheriff's office. And one very well respected Ninth Circuit judge, William Fletcher, came out and said he is framed by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Office, and wrote a hundred-page judicial opinion about that, and that just doesn't happen in the law." He says that his piece on Cooper, the longest column in New York Times history, was also inspired by his own failure, and that of the news media at large, to adequately cover the possible innocence of Texas prisoner Cameron Willingham, who was executed in 2004. Willingham's case garnered a great deal of media attention only after he was executed. "I think Kevin Cooper is innocent," Kristof said, and "I want to write while there's still time to affect the outcome." As he does in his column, Kristof describes the rampant irregularities in Cooper's case that led him to conclude that Cooper had been framed, but he also talks in the podcast about the broader systemic problems that lead to wrongful convictions, especially in cases involving defendants of color. Kristof pointed to the lack of accountability for official misconduct as one of most important systemic issues. "There have to be consequences for police or prosecutors when they engage in this kind of misconduct," he said. "Too often, there are no consequences. We understand that there have to be consequences for bank robbery or murder, but there also have to be consequences for police officers who perjure themselves or sheriff's deputies who plant evidence." Finally, he explains how Cooper's case is emblematic of other problems: "The reason I wrote about the Cooper case is not just because of the injustice, I believe, to one man, but more broadly, because it's a window into the way the criminal justice system is periodically just plain broken, especially with regard to defendants of color or indigent defendants in really sensational cases. Sometimes the system works and sometimes it doesn't, but it shouldn't be a game of lottery when people are arrested and charged with capital offenses."

New York Times Columnist Says Kevin Cooper May Have Been Framed, Urges DNA Testing That Could Prove His Innocence

Citing extensive evidence that California death-row prisoner Kevin Cooper (pictured) may have been framed, New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof has urged Governor Jerry Brown to permit advanced DNA testing of evidence that could potentially prove Cooper's innocence. In a column electronically posted by the Times on May 17, 2018 and scheduled to appear in the paper's May 20 Sunday print edition, Kristof joins a former FBI agent, the American Bar Association, and Judge William A. Fletcher of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in calling for closer review of the case. In his column, Kristof calls Cooper's case "a failure at every level," and says that he believes Cooper was framed by the San Bernardino's sheriff's office, which had a history of planting and mishandling evidence. Cooper, who is Black, became the lead suspect in the 1983 killings of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter Jessica Ryen, and 11-year-old neighbor Chris Hughes, in spite of statements by 8-year-old Josh Ryen, the sole survivor of the attack, who twice told investigators that three White men had committed the murders. The four victims had been stabbed or slashed a combined 140 times with an ice pick, a hatchet, and at least one knife—an assault, Kristof said, that a single perpetrator, much less the 155-pound Cooper, was unlikely to have been able to carry out. Multiple witnesses saw three White men driving a vehicle fitting the description of the Ryens' car—which had been stolen from their home—near the time of the murders. Other witnesses reported three White men in bloody clothes acting strangely at a nearby bar the night of the crime. When the car was found 30 miles away, Kristof writes, it "inconveniently had blood on the driver’s seat, the front passenger seat and the back seat—suggesting at least three killers." Cooper came under suspicion because he had escaped from a local prison, where he had been incarcerated for robbery, and had hidden in an empty house near the Ryen family's home. An initial police search of Cooper's hideout turned up no evidence, but the day after they identified him as a suspect, police "found" the sheath of a hatchet and a bloody prison-uniform button in a room they claimed—falsely, Kristof says—to have not previously searched. The hatchet itself was found in a different direction, near the path the Ryens' vehicle took the night of the murder, and the button later turned out to be a different color from the uniform Cooper had been wearing. Numerous leads pointed to an alternative suspect, a recently released convicted murderer whom Kristof identifies only as "Lee," but police destroyed key evidence—a pair of bloody coveralls given to police by Lee's girlfriend—before any testing took place. In 2004, Cooper was allowed to test a blood sample from a tan T-shirt that was found near the murder scene. The shirt was the same color, size, and brand as a T-shirt Lee's girlfriend said she had recently bought for him and that he had been wearing earlier on the day of the murders. The testing found Cooper's blood on the shirt, but his blood was contaminated with a chemical used in preserving blood samples, indicating that it had likely been planted on the shirt. The lab then tested the sample of Cooper's blood held by the sheriff's office and found multiple blood types, suggesting that Cooper's sample had been topped off with someone else's blood. Testing of other evidence, including the murder weapon and strands of hair found at the scene, could prove Cooper's claim that he is innocent. Kristof said, "[I]f we execute a man in so flawed a case without even bothering to test the evidence rigorously, then a piece of our justice system dies along with Kevin Cooper." [UPDATE: U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, who as California's Attorney General had opposed Cooper's requests for DNA testing and had initially declined to comment for the story, joined in Kristof's request for DNA testing. On May 18, she posted on Facebook: "As a firm believer in DNA testing, I hope the governor and the state will allow for such testing in the case of Kevin Cooper."]  

STUDIES: Death-Penalty Jury Selection “Whitewashes” Juries and is Biased Towards Death

As support for the death penalty has declined in America, the process of "death-qualification"—which screens potential jurors in death-penalty cases based upon their views about capital punishment—produces increasingly unrepresentative juries from which African Americans are disproportionately excluded and, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California, increasingly biases juries in favor of conviction and death sentences. Death-qualification, the researchers say, "systematically 'whitewashes' the capital eligible pool [and] leaves behind a subgroup [of jurors] that does not represent the views of its community." Professor Mona Lynch (pictured, l.) of University of California-Irvine's Department of Criminology, Law, and Society, and Professor Craig Haney (pictured, r.) of University of California-Santa Cruz's Department of Psychology conducted two surveys of jurors in Solano County, California—which has the highest concentration of African Americans in the state—18 months apart to examine how racial differences in death-penalty opinions affect the composition of capital juries. As support for the death penalty has declined in recent years, the gap between the views of Whites (and particularly White males) and the views of African Americans and women has grown, exacerbating what the authors call "tension between the constitutionally sanctioned practice of death-qualification and a capital defendant’s constitutional right to be tried by a representative and unbiased jury." The researchers asked respondents about their views on the death penalty, and about whether those views would interfere with their ability to apply the law in a death-penalty trial, which would make them legally excludable from a jury. They found that the death-qualification process excluded a far greater percentage of people who said they opposed the death penalty than said they supported it, and that the rate of exclusion was even more disproportionate for African Americans. And while nearly equal percentages of White men and women were excluded by the process, the women who were excluded were much more likely to oppose capital punishment. The death-qualification process, they said, also contributed to racially disparate use of discretionary jury strikes by the prosecution by providing a facially race-neutral reason for disproportionately excluding African-American jurors. When the researchers asked jurors about their attitudes towards potentially aggravating and mitigating evidence, they found that a majority of White jurors—and particularly White male jurors—disregarded most mitigating evidence that would be offered to spare a defendant's a life and that a significant minority of these jurors inappropriately viewed many of these mitigating factors as reasons to impose a death sentence. They also found that White respondents "were significantly more receptive to aggravating evidence and were more inclined to weigh these specific items in favor of a death sentence compared to African American respondents." The process, they said, "creat[es] a jury whose members are unusually hostile to mitigation," which may "functionally undermine" the fair consideration of a capital defendant's case in mitigation. "This risk," the authors wrote, "is particularly high in cases involving African American defendants, especially where white men dominate the jury." The overall result, they said, is that, "[i]n a county in California where support for and opposition to capital punishment are beginning to approach parity, death qualification still has the potential to produce jury pools that are significantly more likely to favor the death penalty." 

Voters in Durham, North Carolina Expand Reach of National Reform Movement, Elect Anti-Death Penalty Prosecutor

Voters in North Carolina added their voices to an expanding movement for local criminal justice reform, ousting sheriffs who closely cooperated with federal authorities seeking to detain and deport immigrants and nominating reform candidates in local district attorney races. In Durham County, considered the state's most progressive county, voters in the Democratic primary opted for a candidate who advocated more rapid reform and said she would never pursue the death penalty, replacing incumbent Roger Echols with former defense attorney, Satana Deberry (pictured). With no Republican challenger in the Fall, the nomination virtually assures that Deberry will be elected district attorney. Durham County voters also unseated incumbent Sheriff Mike Andrews, who had honored constitutionally problematic immigration detainers, in favor of former Duke University police chief Clarence Birkhead, who vowed "to not cooperate with ICE." In an historic primary election in Mecklenburg County, Democratic voters ensured for the first time ever that African Americans would be elected to the offices of sheriff and district attorney in the county. Thirty-year Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department veteran Garry McFadden said he would end incumbent sheriff Irwin Carmichael's controversial immigrant dentention policies and interim District Attorney Spencer Merriweather called his election "a beginning in the process of building trust in our criminal justice system." Neither of the candidates face opposition in the general election. During the Durham district attorney's campaign, Echols and Deberry both said they would work to reform policies that have contributed to over-incarceration, but Deberry challenged the pace at which Echols pursued reform and called for a "culture change" in the DA's office. The candidates' views on capital punishment typified their different approaches to reform. In responses to a candidate questionnaire from the Durham's People's Alliance Political Action Committee, Echols said he was "not a proponent of the death penalty" and favored its abolition, but "recognized[d] that it is allowable under the law" and should be considered "at most ... [on] rare occasions." By contrast, Deberry's questionnaire response was unequivocal: "I am morally, ethically, theologically, and in all other ways opposed to the death penalty [and] ... as District Attorney, I would not seek the death penalty in any case in Durham County." Deberry wrote that capital punishment "is irrevocably flawed and does not provide justice to victims nor society. I believe it suffers from racial and socioeconomic bias and there is no way to ensure that it is being ethically applied." She called the death penalty "a human rights violation" and said it "should be abolished." Deberry is one of a growing number of prosecutors, such as Denver's Beth McCann and Philadelphia's Larry Krasner, who have announced they will not use the death penalty. In another closely watched local election that is considered a bell-weather for the strength of reform efforts, San Diego district attorney challenger Geneviéve Jones-Wright recently committed to exercise her prosecutorial discretion to decline to seek the death penalty. "Although the death penalty is still legal in California, it is not mandatory that a District Attorney imposes it," she responded to an ACLU-sponsored California District Attorney candidate questionnaire. "The death penalty is discriminatory, costly, and ineffective as a deterrent. I am morally opposed to it," Jones-Wright said. Jones-Wright, whose campaign is supported by the progressive REAL Justice PAC and by philanthropist George Soros' California Justice & Public Safety PAC, is attempting to unseat incumbent interim DA Summer Stephan, whose campaign is backed by a PAC sponsored by the California deputy district attorney’s association. Stephan did not respond to the questionnaire.

EDITORIAL: California Exoneration Shows Why Death Penalty Needs to End

In an April 27 editorial, the Los Angeles Times said the death penalty should come to an end and the recent exoneration of California death-row prisoner Vicente Benavides Figueroa illustrates why. Benavides — an intellectually disabled Mexican national who was working as a seasonal farm worker — spent more than 25 years on death row after being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death on charges of raping, sodomizing, and murdering his girlfriend's 21-month-old daughter. His conviction rested on extensive false forensic testimony provided by prosecution medical witnesses who had been given incomplete hospital records and who erroneously testified that the child had been sexually assaulted. One California Supreme Court justice described that testimony as “among the most hair-raising false evidence that I’ve encountered in all the time that I’ve been looking at criminal cases.” The Times called Benavides's conviction "an egregious miscarriage of justice" and said "[h]is exoneration serves as a reminder of what ought to be abundantly clear by now: that despite jury trials, appellate reconsideration and years of motions and counter-motions, the justice system is not infallible, and it is possible (or perhaps inevitable) that innocent people will end up facing execution at the hands of the state." Benavides's case was prosecuted in Kern County during the administration of long-time District Attorney Ed Jagels. Elected multiple times to head the California District Attorneys Association, Jagels successfully pushed to remove three justices from the California Supreme Court whom he claimed were anti-death-penalty. His official Web page as district attorney touted that Kern had the highest per-capita imprisonment rate of any county in state, and as of January 1, 2013, the county had more people on its death row than were sentenced to death in more than 99% of U.S. counties. The county also has the highest per capita exoneration rate in the state. Benavides is reportedly the 26th innocent person wrongly convicted by Kern County prosecutors, most of whom were wrongly convicted as a result of official misconduct. As of March 2015, 22 of the 24 Kern County exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations had involved official misconduct by police, prosecutors, or other government officials. Benavides's exoneration, the Times said, is also a reminder "of the dangers inherent in California's efforts to speed up the calendar for death penalty appeals under Proposition 66 .... Moving more quickly to execute convicted death row inmates increases the likelihood that due process will be given short shrift and the innocent will be put to death." The records that showed 21-month-old Consuelo Verdugo had not been sexually assaulted — and that cast doubt on whether she had been murdered at all — were not discovered until 7 years after trial. The one year that Proposition 66 gives appellate lawyers to investigate cases and file appeals makes it less likely that they will discover such evidence "and thus more likely that innocent people will be put to death." Washington Post columnist Radley Balko put it more starkly: "if Prop 66 had been in place when Mr. Benavides was convicted, he’d almost certainly be dead. He’d never have lived to see his exoneration." Balko notes that "[t]his problem isn’t just limited to California. Even as we learn more about the extent of wrongful convictions, prosecutor misconduct and misuse of forensic evidence, states such as Texas, Alabama and Florida have also moved toward limiting appeals and speeding up executions." He says "[i]t's almost as if some lawmakers and law enforcement officials think that the problem with wrongful convictions isn’t that there are too many of them, but that they’re bad PR for the law-and-order cause. And that the best way to make them go away isn’t to fix the problems that allowed them to happen, but to execute people before we ever get the chance to learn that they’re innocent." But the problems, the Times editors said, may be beyond repair. "The unfixable problem with the death penalty is that mistakes get made, witnesses lie, confessions get coerced — all factors that can lead to false convictions. It is abjectly immoral to speed things up by limiting due process. The better solution," the editors conclude, "is to get rid of the death penalty altogether."

Los Angeles Times Editorial: Exoneration Shows Why Death Penalty Needs to End

The April 2018 exoneration of Vicente Benavides Figueroa, wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death on charges of raping, sodomizing, and murdering his girlfriend's 21-month-old daughter, illustrates why the death penalty should be abolished, the Los Angeles Times said in an April 27, 2018 editorial. Benavides — an intellectually disabled Mexican national who was working as a seasonal farm worker — was sentenced to death after medical witnesses had been provided incomplete hospital records and erroneously testified that the child had been sexually assaulted. His conviction, the paper wrote, "was an egregious miscarriage of justice; he spent a quarter-century on death row for a crime he apparently did not commit. His exoneration serves as a reminder of what ought to be abundantly clear by now: that despite jury trials, appellate reconsideration and years of motions and counter-motions, the justice system is not infallible, and it is possible (or perhaps inevitable) that innocent people will end up facing execution at the hands of the state." Benavides's case, the Times said "ought to remind us of the dangers inherent in California's efforts to speed up the calendar for death penalty appeals under Proposition 66 .... Moving more quickly to execute convicted death row inmates increases the likelihood that due process will be given short shrift and the innocent will be put to death." The records that showed 21-month-old Consuelo Verdugo had not been sexually assaulted — and that cast doubt on whether she had been murdered at all — were not discovered until 7 years after trial. The one year Proposition 66 gives appellate lawyers to investigate cases and file appeals makes it less likely that they will discover such evidence "and thus more likely that innocent people will be put to death." The editorial concluded: "The unfixable problem with the death penalty is that mistakes get made, witnesses lie, confessions get coerced — all factors that can lead to false convictions. It is abjectly immoral to speed things up by limiting due process. The better solution is to get rid of the death penalty altogether."

Vicente Benavides, Sentenced to Death by False Forensics, to Be Freed After 26 Years on Death Row

Mexican national Vicente Figueroa Benavides (pictured), wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in Kern County, California for supposedly raping, sodomizing, and murdering his girlfriend’s 21-month-old daughter, will soon be freed after nearly 26 years on death row. He will be the 162nd person and fifth foreign national exonerated from a U.S. death row since 1973. In a media advisory on April 17, 2018, Kern District Attorney Lisa Green announced on April 17, 2018 that her office would be dropping all charges against Benavides, one month after the California Supreme Court vacated the former farmworker’s convictions for sexually assaulting and murdering Consuelo Verdugo, which the court called a product of “extensive,” “pervasive,” “impactful,” and “false” forensic testimony. The girl, the court said, had never been sexually assaulted and may actually have died from being hit by a car. At trial, the prosecution presented testimony from forensic pathologist Dr. James Diblin, who told the jury that Consuelo had died from “blunt force penetrating injury of the anus” and claimed that many of her internal injuries were the result of rape. He further testified that arm injuries, other internal trauma, dilated pupils, and compression rib fractures she had sustained had been “caused by tight squeezing during a sexual assault.” During post-conviction proceedings, Benavides’s lawyers presented evidence from Dr. Astrid Heger, one of the country’s leading experts on child abuse, debunking Diblin’s false testimony. Dr. Heger described Diblin’s assertion that Consuelo’s injuries had been the product of sexual assault as “so unlikely to the point of being absurd. … No such mechanism of injury has ever been reported in any literature of child abuse or child assault.” Rather, she said, the internal injuries Consuelo sustained were commonly seen in victims of automobile accidents. Hospital records and witness statements obtained by Benavides’s appeal lawyers also undermined Diblin’s false testimony. Records showed that the examining physicians from Consuelo’s initial hospitalization had not seen any signs of bleeding when she was brought to the emergency room, and a nurse who helped treat Consuelo reported that neither she nor any of her colleagues had seen evidence of anal or vaginal trauma when the child arrived. Indeed, the court said, the medical records showed that the injuries to Consuelo’s genitalia and anus that Diblin had claimed were evidence of sexual assault were actually “attribut[able] to medical intervention,” including repeated failed efforts to insert a catheter and the improper use of an adult-sized catheter on the small child. Associate Justice Carol Corrigan—a former prosecutor—described the forensic testimony that Benavides had brutally raped and anally sodomized Consuelo as “among the most hair-raising false evidence that I’ve encountered in all the time that I’ve been looking at criminal cases.” On appeal, prosecutors admitted that the forensic evidence they used to convict Benavides was false, but asked the state court to sustain a conviction for second-degree murder. Even after agreeing on April 17, 2018 to drop all charges, District Attorney Green refused to concede that Benavides was innocent of murder. “[I]t doesn’t mean he’s innocent of the physical child abuse,” she said. “My decision not to retry the case is not the same as a finding of factual innocence[.] I'm not stating in any way that he’s factually innocent of the death of the child.” At least ten men and women have been exonerated from death rows across the United States after having been wrongly convicted for killing a child. In the cases of Rodricus Crawford and Sabrina Butler, the medical evidence also showed that no crime had occurred, but the defendants were convicted based on false forensic testimony. Benavides is the fourth person exonerated from California’s death row since 1980. A California prison spokesperson said he is expected the be freed “within a few days,” as soon as the Kern County court orders his release. [UPDATE: The court formally dismissed all charges against Mr. Benavides and he was released on April 19, 2018.]

California Supreme Court Grants New Trial to Man Sent to Death Row 25 Years Ago by False Forensic Evidence

The California Supreme Court has vacated the conviction of Vicente Figueroa Benavides (pictured), saying that the forensic evidence that sent the former Mexican farmworker to death row 25 years ago was “extensive,” “pervasive,” “impactful,” and “false.” Benavides, now 68, was sentenced to death in 1993 after being found guilty of brutally murdering Consuelo Verdugo, his girlfriend’s 21-month-old toddler, by raping and anally sodomizing her. However, the court said, medical evidence showed that the girl was never raped or sodomized and may not have been murdered at all. Instead, she may have died from complications from having been struck by a car. Benavides—whose lawyers have argued is developmentally disabled and possesses the mental ability of a 7-year-old—told the police and jury during the trial that he lost track of the toddler while he was preparing dinner on November 17, 1991 and he found her outdoors, vomiting. Consuelo’s mother took her to a local medical center that evening, where her condition worsened. After surgery and two hospital transfers, the child died a week later. At trial, forensic pathologist Dr. James Diblin testified that the toddler had died from “blunt force penetrating injury of the anus” and claimed that the major internal injuries she suffered were the result of rape. He further testified that arm injuries, internal trauma, dilated pupils, and compression rib fractures that Consuelo sustained had been “caused by tight squeezing during a sexual assault.” Dr. Jess Diamond, who evaluated the toddler at Kern Medical Center, also initially testified that the baby had been raped. However, medical records obtained by Benavides’s post-conviction lawyers showed that the examining physicians had not seen any signs of bleeding when Consuelo was brought to the hospital, and a nurse who helped treat the toddler said that neither she nor any of her colleagues saw evidence of anal or vaginal trauma when the child arrived. Instead, the court said, the injuries to Consuelo’s genitalia and anus were “attribut[able] to medical intervention,” including repeated failed efforts to insert a catheter and the improper use of an adult-sized catheter on the small child. “After reviewing the medical records and photographs that I should have been provided in 1993,” Dr. Diamond withdrew his assessment that Consuelo had been raped. “I am convinced that this case presents a tremendous failing of the criminal justice system," he said. The defense also presented evidence from Dr. Astrid Heger, one of the country’s leading experts on child abuse, who described Dr. Didbin’s assertion that Consuelo’s injuries had been the product of sexual assault as “so unlikely to the point of being absurd. … No such mechanism of injury has ever been reported in any literature of child abuse or child assault.” She said the internal injuries the child sustained were commonly seen in victims of automobile accidents. During oral argument, Associate Justice Carol Corrigan, a former prosecutor, described Dibdin's testimony as being “among the most hair-raising false evidence that I’ve encountered in all the time that I’ve been looking at criminal cases." Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye compared the sexual assault allegations to “a bomb dropped on the jury” that prevented the jurors from considering the evidence that the toddler may have been hit by a car. Prosecutors admitted that the forensic evidence they used to convict Benavides was false, but asked the state court to sustain a conviction for second-degree murder. With its key evidence discredited, Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green said it was improbable that prosecutors would attempt to retry Benavides. If the charges are dismissed, Benavides would be the fourth California death-row prisoner to be exonerated since the state brought back the death penalty in 1974.

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