Appeals court intervenes in California execution

A condemned man in California won a stay of execution yesterday amid an outpouring of public protest over evidence suggesting he might not have been the one who committed a horrendous quadruple murder in 1983.

Kevin Cooper’s 19 years on San Quentin Prison’s death row had been due to end with his death at 12:01 this morning, until the stay was granted by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeal around noon yesterday. His bid for clemency had already been denied by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and by a three-judge 9th Circuit panel on Sunday.

The stay arose when the 9th Circuit decided to allow an enlarged, 11-judge panel to hear the case at a later date, out of deference to the dissenting judge, who said in Sunday’s ruling that “There should be no hurry to execute Cooper.”

The stay came as a vast relief to death-penalty opponents, who feared it would open the floodgates to more executions. Despite having 640 inmates on its death row, California has put to death just 10 people since the death penalty was reinstated there in 1978.

Canada’s Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted joined those opposing the execution — only the third time it has done so in an American case.

“I think there has been a tremendous amount of pressure,” AIDWYC spokesman Win Wahrer said in an interview yesterday. “We are into a crucial period now. The California justice system is under an international microscope. Most countries in the world find it absolutely barbaric and appalling that the death penalty exists. At the very least, any citizen deserves to have every stone turned over before a decision of this magnitude is made.”

Ms. Wahrer said that a critical 24-hour period commenced at midnight, during which the execution could be carried out immediately if the court was to lift its stay for any reason. After that window closes, she said, it will take state at least 40 days to reschedule and carry out any execution.

The June 4, 1983, massacre was carried out with a buck knife, an ice pick and a hatchet. Killed were Douglas and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter Jessica and an 11-year-old visitor, Christopher Hughes. The couple’s eight-year-old son Joshua survived a slit throat.

The state’s evidence includes footprints of prison-issue shoes found inside the Ryen home. It also produced a rope with Douglas Ryen’s blood type and hair that matched the victims in a nearby home where Mr. Cooper had been staying.

But those who question Mr. Cooper’s guilt point to clumps of long, blond hair found in the clenched hands of one of the victims that was never compared to that of three other strong suspects. They also cite evidence that three other suspects were carrying out a “hit” for the racist Aryan Brotherhood that night and mistakenly went to the wrong home.

Mr. Cooper’s lawyers produced another new witness last week: a woman who says that on the night of the 1983 murders, she saw two men covered in blood at a bar near the scene of the killings.

One of the great mysteries in the case involves eyewitness Joshua Ryen, who insisted for years that the attack was carried out by three white or Mexican men — not Mr. Cooper, who is black. He reversed his position after the state Attorney-General’s office tested crime-scene DNA in 2002 and said it was “unlikely” to have come from anyone but Mr. Cooper.

Mr. Cooper’s supporters believe that police used blood from a sample taken after his arrest and planted it as evidence. Tests would reveal traces of a chemical used in laboratory test tubes if it had been kept and planted, rather than spilled by the killer.

“The DNA testing must be done at an independent lab, probably out-of-state — not by the police,” Ms. Wahrer said. “Can you imagine how Mr. Ryen and his grandmother would feel if they found out a month after Mr. Cooper’s execution that three other people had committed the murders? It would be agonizing for them.”

In a dramatic turn in the case over the weekend, former United Press International reporter Kristina Rebelo-Anderson swore an affidavit with potential to break the case open.

Ms. Rebelo-Anderson, who reported on portions of Mr. Cooper’s trial in 1985, said she met a man named Albert Anthony Ruiz in 1997 who claimed to have worked undercover for police and was present at the Ryen murder scene.

She said that Mr. Ruiz told her in considerable detail about false evidence that was planted at the crime scene to frame Mr. Cooper, who was seen by police as a useless ne’er-do-well.

“Figure it out — the kid has hair in her hands,” she quoted Mr. Ruiz as saying. “That little girl put up a struggle, the blond hair was in her hand.”

According to the reporter, Mr. Ruiz went on to say: “I told you Kevin Cooper did not kill that family. They just want to hang this guy. I am still sure he did not do it but nobody can help him; they have already buried him. There were officers everywhere in the house. There was blood everywhere. . . . Even the officers at the scene had blood on them. The scene looked like the gutting of a pig.”

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Feb. 10, 2004
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