Death Penalty Focus features interview with Kevin Cooper in January Newsletter

This interview was originally published on January 17, 2024 in Death Penalty Focus’s January newsletter. 

In a phone interview from the 48-square-foot cell on San Quentin’s death row, where he has lived since he was sentenced to death in 1985, Kevin Cooper pointed out that this is the second time the American Bar Association has written to a California governor expressing its concerns about his conviction and death sentence.

“The ABA doesn’t normally come out on behalf of any inmate,” he said. “And they’ve done so twice in my case. It should let everyone know there is something wrong with this case. Somebody needs to listen.”

By “somebody,” he means Gov. Newsom, who, according to a spokesperson, is convinced of Cooper’s guilt after reviewing the Special Counsel’s report.

Since his arrest in 1983 for the quadruple murder of the Ryen family in San Bernardino, there are still valid questions about evidence that was missing, tampered with, destroyed, possibly planted, or hidden from the defense. In its letter to Newsom, the ABA reiterated those concerns, noting that, once again, law enforcement withheld crucial evidence from the Special Counsel. Newsom should “take action to ensure that the State discloses all relevant evidence and that any such evidence is evaluated before acting on Mr. Cooper’s petition for executive clemency,” the ABA wrote.

Cooper agrees that Newsom can and should demand to know why the Special Counsel didn’t obtain and examine the evidence that Newsom specified in his Executive Order before deciding whether to accept its findings of guilt.

“He issued an executive order granting me, a death row inmate, for the first time in California, an innocence investigation. He ordered Morrison Foerster to do this and set guidelines for them to abide by. He ordered them to obtain all the files from my case from the State, 38 years of them, and Morrison Foerster admits they were never turned over. Before this case, how many other executive orders that were not followed were allowed to stand? But the governor didn’t go back and order them to turn over their files.”

Cooper believes Newsom accepts the flawed investigation at face value because of his presidential ambitions. “This is a high-profile case, and he doesn’t want Republicans to attack him for pardoning someone convicted of murder. Look what happened to Dukakis in 1988. George [H.W.] Bush used the case of Willie Horton (a convicted murderer sentenced to life without parole who, during Dukakis’ term as governor, escaped from a weekend furlough and committed rape and assault) to make him look bad. Bill Clinton went back to Arkansas when he was running for president in the ’90s to watch the state kill a man with brain damage (from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head) to show he was tough on crime.

“Presidential ambitions are stronger than concern for the life of a Black man. I’m collateral damage.”

But he’s adamant that he’s not giving up. “More people are helping me now than ever before because they see the truth. And the truth will win out. The truth is there. We just keep fighting.”