California Governor Gavin Newsom has ordered an independent investigation into the case of Kevin Cooper, who has consistently maintained his innocence in the 1983 quadruple-murder for which he was sentenced to death. Newsom’s May 28, 2021 executive order appoints the law firm Morrison and Foerster, LLP as Special Counsel to the California Board of Parole Hearings and directs the firm to “conduct a full review of the trial and appellate records in [Cooper’s] case and of the facts underlying the conviction.”

Newsom’s order — issued in conjunction with 14 pardons, 13 commutations, and 8 medical reprieves granted in other cases — directs Morrison and Foerster “to investigate, report, and make a recommendation” concerning Cooper’s application for clemency and claims of innocence. It also specifies that the firm’s investigation include an “evaluation” of “recently conducted DNA tests.”

Cooper was convicted in 1985 of the murders of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter Jessica Ryen, and 11-year-old neighbor Chris Hughes. Joshua Ryen, then 8 years old, was the sole survivor of the crime and told investigators that three white men had committed the murders. Several witnesses reported seeing three white men driving a car that fit the description of the Ryens’ stolen vehicle on the night of the murders, while other witnesses at a nearby bar reported that three white men in bloody clothes had been acting strangely on the night of the crime. Despite this evidence, Cooper, a Black man, became the lead suspect. After seeing Cooper’s photo on television, Joshua Ryen said he was not the killer.

According to Newsom’s order, Cooper maintains that evidence at his trial was “manufactured, mishandled, planted, tampered with, or otherwise tainted by law enforcement.”

Cooper filed for clemency in 2016. In December 2018, then-Governor Jerry Brown ordered new DNA testing of certain items of evidence. Newsom ordered additional testing in February 2019. Newsom’s recent order said an independent investigation was necessary to resolve the “starkly different views” of Cooper’s attorneys and the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office “regarding how the results [of the DNA testing] should be interpreted and the reliability and integrity of certain evidence.”

Those differing views were evident in statements released by each side, reacting to the news of Newsom’s order. “We are gratified that the governor has ordered an independent investigation,” said Norman Hile, an attorney representing Cooper. “We are confident that a thorough review will demonstrate that Kevin Cooper is innocent and should be released from prison.” By contrast, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office issued a statement saying it “disagrees with the governor’s decision to refer Kevin Cooper’s conviction to special counsel.” District Attorney Jason Anderson told the Los Angeles Times, “There are no unanswered questions. So for this to be ordered is inappropriate.”

Cooper’s case has attracted national attention, especially following a 2018 New York Times investigation by columnist Nicholas Kristof, which highlighted the evidence for Cooper’s innocence. Then-Senator Kamala Harris told the New York Times that she regretted her decision as California Attorney General to deny Cooper’s request for DNA testing. In a Facebook post, she said, “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.” The NAACP Legal Defense Fund sent a letter to Governor Newsom in March 2021 urging an investigation into Cooper’s case. “Mr. Cooper is a Black man who has served over 35 years on death row, notwithstanding serious concerns about the integrity of the state’s case and the risk that it was marred by racial discrimination. The grave doubts about Mr. Cooper’s guilt have only worsened over time,” the letter stated.

The physical evidence showed that the four victims had been stabbed or slashed a combined 140 times with an ice pick, a hatchet, and at least one knife, a crime, Kristof said, that no single perpetrator, much less the 155-pound Cooper, was likely to have carried out alone. The Ryens’ car was recovered 30 miles from the crime scene with blood on the driver’s seat, the front passenger seat, and the back seat, consistent with an offense involving three killers. Police destroyed clothing belonging to another possible perpetrator before it could be tested.

DNA testing found Cooper’s blood, contaminated with a chemical used in preserving blood samples, on other clothing reportedly worn by the killer, suggesting that the blood had been planted. The lab then tested the sample of Cooper’s blood held by the sheriff’s office and discovered that it contained multiple blood types, suggesting that the sample had been topped off with someone else’s blood. Police also “found” other evidence purportedly linking Cooper to the murders in locations that police reports from prior searches had indicated contained no incriminating evidence.

Executions in California have been officially on hold since Governor Newsom declared a moratorium in 2019. Though the state has the largest death row in the nation, the last execution in California took place in 2006.


Phil Willon, Newsom orders inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tion into mur­der con­vic­tion of Kevin Cooper, Los Angeles Times, May 28, 2021; Tim Bella, A Black death row inmate claims police framed him in quadru­ple mur­der. A probe will now reex­am­ine his case., Washington Post, May 29, 2021; Robert Jablon, Probe ordered on California death row inmate inno­cence claim, Associated Press, May 29, 2021; Steve Gorman, California gov­er­nor orders review of death row inmate’s con­vic­tion, Reuters, May 29, 2021; News Release, Governor Newsom Announces Clemency Actions, Signs Executive Order for Independent Investigation of Kevin Cooper Case, Office of Governor Gavin Newsom, May 282021.

Read Governor Newsom’s Executive Order and the news release issued in response by San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson.