Saved by a Hair 

Kevin Cooper likely gets another month of life

Thursday, Feb 12 2004

Convicted murderer Kevin Cooper now has lived to see the expiration of four death warrants bearing his name and will likely get at least another month on Death Row as justice officials test strands of blond hair found 21 years ago in the tightly closed fist of a brutally slashed 10-year-old girl.

Defense lawyers and death-penalty opponents have criticized San Bernardino County and State of California prosecutors who argued for decades that nothing about the hair, or other as-yet untested evidence, could possibly clear Cooper, a convicted felon who escaped from the California Institute for Men in Chino after mistakenly being sent to a minimum-security wing. After leaving the prison, a jury found, Cooper used an ax and an ice pick to brutally hack to death Jessica Ryen, her 41-year-old parents, Douglas and Peg Ryen, and Jessica’s 11-year-old friend, Christopher Hughes, in the Ryens’ Chino Hills home. The assailant cut the throat of 8-year-old Joshua Ryen, who miraculously survived.

Judges repeatedly rejected Cooper’s demands for DNA testing, then relented last year and permitted testing of blood samples. They proved a positive match with Cooper. But the hair remained untested, and it took a bizarre discrepancy over whether Cooper walked out of the prison wearing Keds or P.F. Flyers to mandate an additional DNA exam.

Related Stories

  • Beer Festivals 3

    Nothing says summer in Southern California like unlimited beer outside on a sunny day. If you're new to craft beer, attending a festival is the perfect way to access many different breweries and styles in one place. Plus food to keep you grounded and music to keep you occupied.  Every...
  • New CA Beers

    A three day weekend is swiftly approaching - and plenty of beer drinking with it. Lucky for you, this is one of the most exciting weeks we've seen for beer releases, and every selection we've featured is unique and large-format. If you're looking for beers you can take generous pulls...
  • Marry, People 2

    After the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for same-sex marriage to resume in California last summer, people started getting their vows on pretty much right away. See also: Gay Marriage in California: What Happens Next? But California law still contained antiquated language that defined marriage as "a personal relation arising out of...
  • iPhone Privacy

    It was a scary prospect that we wrote about before: Police didn't need a warrant to search your smartphone. They only needed to have probable cause to arrest you. If your phone was with you, all its contents was theirs for the browsing. The U.S. Supreme Court, in weighing a Southern California...
  • Whole Foods Fined for Overcharging California Customers 5

    Just last week we went into Whole Foods for quinoa and came out with one $150 grocery bag of God-knows-what (we think Parmesan crisps, an organic T-shirt and beer made by Franciscan friars was in there). We are used to, but puzzled by, this phenomenon. So we were more than a little...

On Sunday, as a handful of Hollywood celebrities gathered at the Brentwood home of another Hollywood celebrity, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, to demand clemency, a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a stay of execution based on arguments that execution by lethal injection is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. But the three-judge panel was not unanimous, and 11 of the court’s judges went the other way, temporarily blocking Cooper’s death to give time to test the mysterious blond hair. State officials sought to take the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court and still keep Cooper’s 12:01 a.m. Tuesday appointment in the death chamber. But the 9th Circuit’s action is unappealable.

The problem with the hair, defense lawyers say, is that it could not possibly belong to Cooper, who is black and has black hair, or to Jessica herself, whose blond hair was darker than the strands found in her hand some eight to 10 hours after she and her parents and friend were murdered.

But additional doubts about the killings grew out of statements from the only known eyewitness. Joshua Ryen, now 29, had lain bleeding on the floor all night and into the morning with his murdered parents and sister nearby, and was recovering in a hospital bed 10 days later when he told a social worker that three men were responsible. He repeated the statement to a law enforcement investigator — but in one version of the story he said the men were white, in another he said they were Hispanic. Defense lawyers say the blond hair could belong to one of those men, or to someone else entirely. A DNA test could show them to be right, but lawyers are also banking on a theory that the blood samples that tested as a positive match for Cooper were planted by police.

That’s part of the problem with DNA evidence, according to Justin Brooks, executive director of the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law in San Diego. Brooks’ use of DNA testing has resulted in the exoneration of numerous criminal defendants more than a decade after their conviction, and similar efforts around the country have cleared and freed more than 100 convicts. But he noted that even the most accurate DNA tests can do nothing to combat allegations that police planted evidence.

“You look at Cooper and you can say, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of evidence of guilt here,’” Brooks said. “But I’ve seen so many cases in which the evidence of guilt was overwhelming, until we’ve shown they had the wrong guy. As these exonerations pile up, it gets easier and easier to answer those people who insist that we need a death penalty.”

The 9th Circuit’s extraordinary last-minute ruling staying the execution was based on two new declarations, one by an inmate at Chino, the other by the warden, that the court said could show Cooper’s prison-issued shoes were P.F. Flyers. Evidence at trial showed that a print made by a Keds shoe — like P.F. Flyers, once a popular athletic shoe before the advent of expensive, high-quality basketball and running shoes — found at the scene matched what Cooper was wearing.

Now the court has suggested that prosecutors may have known of the discrepancy and did not advise Cooper’s legal team, in violation of his constitutional rights. That means Cooper is entitled to have the trial court review all of the other evidence, like those blond hairs, that earlier courts ruled were unnecessary to examine.

Related Content

Now Trending

Los Angeles Concert Tickets

Around The Web


  • The World Cup Celebrated And Mourned By Angelenos
    The World Cup has taken Los Angeles by storm. With viewings beginning at 9 a.m., soccer fans have congregated at some of the best bars in the city including The Village Idiot, Goal, The Parlour on Melrose, Big Wang's and more. Whether they're cheering for their native country, favorite players or mourning the USA's loss, Angelenos have paid close attention to the Cup, showing that soccer is becoming more than a fad. All photos by Daniel Kohn.
  • La Brea Tar Pits "Pit 91" Re-Opening
    Starting June 28th, The Page Museum once again proudly unveils the museum's Observation Pit, which originally opened in 1952 but has spent most of the last half century closed. Now visitors can get an up-close look at Pit 91, which is currently under excavation. The La Brea Tar Pits, home of the Page Museum, is one of the world's most famous ice age fossil locations, known for range of fossils from saber-toothed cats and mammoths to microscopic plants, seeds and insects. The new "Excavator Tour" is free with museum admission if purchased online at tarpits.org . All photos by Nanette Gonzales.
  • Scenes from the O.J. Simpson Circus
    In the months after O.J. Simpson's arrest for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in the summer of 1994, the drama inside the courthouse riveted the masses. But almost as much mayhem was happening right outside the building, as well as near Simpson's Brentwood home. Dissenters and supporters alike showed up to showcase art inspired by the case, sell merchandise, and either rally for, or against, the accused football star. Here is a gallery of the madness, captured by a photojournalist who saw it all. All photos by Ted Soqui.