Image: Kevin Cooper
AP
Prison escapee Kevin Cooper, center, is seen in this 1983 photo shortly after his arrest in Santa Barbara, Calif. Cooper, a condemned murderer, won a stay of execution on Monday.
updated 2/10/2004 1:08:59 PM ET 2004-02-10T18:08:59

The Supreme Court late Monday let stand an appeals court’s stay for a man who hacked four people to death in 1983, denying California’s request to let the execution proceed as planned.

The demand by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that evidence in the case get a fresh look after 18 years of appeals came just hours before Kevin Cooper was to be executed by lethal injection.

The Supreme Court later denied a request by the state of California to reverse the appeals court decision.

The appeals court had granted a stay to consider whether DNA evidence connecting Cooper to the crime should be retested amid repeated claims that he was framed by law enforcement.

“No person should be executed if there is doubt about his or her guilt and an easily available test will determine guilt or innocence,” wrote the majority. They said a federal judge should reopen the case and order new tests on blond hair and a bloody shirt — tests which Cooper says will exonerate him.

“The public cannot afford a mistake. Neither can Cooper,” added appellate court Judges Barry Silverman and Johnnie Rawlinson in a separate opinion. They said the execution should be stayed, but only for as long as it takes to test the shirt for evidence of a preservative that would indicate that Cooper’s blood was planted.

Cooper’s attorney, Lanny Davis, cheered the appeals court ruling.

“What this means is that for the very first time, one court and one neutral fact-finder can hear all of the evidence that the jury was not allowed to hear,” Davis said. “This suggests not only that Kevin Cooper can be found innocent once and for all, but that there may be three murderers out there who need to be found and prosecuted.”

Cooper’s plea for clemency was recently denied by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the first such decision to cross the governor’s desk. Schwarzenegger said the evidence of Cooper’s guilt was overwhelming.

“The order of the 9th Circuit constitutes an unwarranted intrusion on California’s ability to carry out a lawful and final judgment that has been the subject of over 18 years of post-conviction appeals and collateral challenges,” Deputy Attorney General Holly Wilkens wrote in her unsuccessful appeal to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg also said they would have stayed the execution based on a separate appeal from Cooper himself.

The 9th Circuit’s stay was welcomed by Cooper’s celebrity supporters, including actor Denzel Washington and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. But prosecutors and family members of the victims were outraged.

Cooper was convicted of stabbing and hacking to death Douglas and Peggy Ryen, both 41, their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, and 11-year-old Christopher Hughes after escaping from prison in 1983. The Ryens’ son, Joshua, then 8, survived a slit throat.

Accusations of tampering
Cooper claims DNA evidence was planted, but the courts have balked at new tests, saying there was no evidence of tampering. Cooper’s attorneys also insist they have new evidence, producing a woman Sunday who said that on the night of the murders, she saw two men covered in blood at a bar near the scene.

The appellate court ruled the law authorizes renewed DNA testing of blood evidence linking Cooper to the crime, and whether he can seek testing of hair found in one of the victims’ hands. The hair has not undergone forensic testing.

John Kochis, who prosecuted Cooper, said that the hair was from the victim’s own head. However, DNA testing was not available in 1984, when authorities came to that conclusion.

In its ruling Monday, the appeals court said Cooper must get a chance to refute evidence that only recently has come to light or was not disclosed at trial.

For example, authorities at the time said the bloody footprint could have come only from a prison-issued tennis shoe. But a former prison warden says such shoes were commonly sold at retail stores.

The court also noted that Joshua Ryen initially said three or four men committed the murders, and that when he saw a picture of Cooper on television, he said Cooper was not the killer. Ryen has since said he believes Cooper was the killer.

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