A fresh analysis of DNA evidence conducted as part of a clemency bid for Kevin Cooper has failed to exonerate the death row inmate, who made national headlines for the 1983 slaying of three members of a Chino Hills family and a neighbor boy, according to a report released Friday, Jan. 13.
In fact, test results and other evidence conducted during the probe showed that evidence of Cooper’s guilt is “extensive and conclusive,” disproving his claim at trial that police planted DNA evidence at the scene to frame him for the grisly murders of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, and 11-year-old family friend Christopher Hughes.
“The DNA evidence corroborates the testimonial, physical, forensic and circumstantial evidence that was presented at trial, which was sufficient to persuade the jury of Cooper’s guilt even without the DNA evidence that became available later,” the report says. “Cooper has not established that the evidence of his guilt has been fabricated or planted. The evidence, including the DNA evidence itself, dispels the contention that the evidence was fabricated or planted.”
San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson said he wasn’t surprised by the DNA findings from the Special Counsel to the California Board of Parole Hearings, comprised of attorneys from the San Francisco-based law firm of Morrison & Foerster.
“Every other determining body came to the same conclusion,” he said. “It should finally give closure to the victims’ families and end this chapter of the criminal prosecution. There should not be any more questions.”
The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department investigated the homicides.
“We appreciate the Special Counsel’s effort in this investigation,” the department said in an email. “We have always been confident in the original finding and in the work done by our investigators. Our hope is that these findings bring some measure of closure to the families of the victims and this will be the last time they have to relive the horrific event that took the lives of their loved ones.”
Cooper, who has maintained his innocence, became a cause celebre, enjoying notable support from Kim Kardashian, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, the American Bar Association and others. Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the independent investigation in 2021 to aid him in a decision on Cooper’s request for clemency.
In 2019, against opposition from prosecutors, Newsom ordered DNA testing on hairs collected from one of the victim’s hands at the crime scene, blood evidence, fingernail scrapings from the victims and a green button.
The year before, Newsom’s predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown, ordered the testing of a tan T-shirt and orange towel found near the crime scene and a hatchet handle and sheath.
Cooper’s attorney at the time said he believed testing would show that Cooper was framed.
The Special Counsel said its retained experts also considered Cooper’s arguments that others were the “true” killers, but found no evidence to support that theory.
“Cooper has not established that others committed the Ryen/Hughes crimes,” said the report. “The contention that someone else committed the crimes is refuted by the overwhelming evidence of Cooper’s guilt, and by the absence of any DNA evidence or any other persuasive evidence that points to any other person as the culprit.”
In April 1983, Cooper was convicted of burglary in Los Angeles County and sent to the California Institution for Men in Chino. Less than two months later, he escaped from the prison and hid in a vacant Chino Hills rental house located 150 yards from the home of the Ryens, according to prosecutors. He remained at the house until the evening of June 4, 1983.
The Ryens, their daughter and the neighbor boy were killed either June 4 or 5, prosecutors have said. The Ryens’ 8-year-old son, Josh, had his throat slashed in the attack but survived.
Because the Ryen house was within two miles of the California Institute for Men, then a minimum security state prison, and Boys Republic, a school in Chino Hills that housed troubled adolescents, authorities explored whether the murders might have been committed by an escaped inmate.
San Bernardino County sheriff’s investigators learned three prisoners had escaped from the California Institute for Men days before the murders. Among them was an inmate known as David Trautman, whose real identity was Kevin Cooper.
At the time, Cooper had arrest warrants on file for an October 1982 robbery, kidnapping, and rape in Pennsylvania.
Josh Ryen told police and hospital staff within hours of the murders that the killers were “three white men,” but Cooper is Black. Josh repeated this identification of the attackers in the days following the crimes, the clemency request noted. When he saw Cooper’s picture on television as the suspected attacker, Joshua said, “That’s not the man who did it,” according to the clemency request.
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However, the DNA evidence against Cooper was “highly incriminating,” said the Special Counsel.
Specifically, testing showed that blood found on a wall in the Ryens’ home, where the murders occurred, matched Cooper, the report says.
Cooper’s blood and Doug Ryen’s blood also were found on a T-shirt discovered by the road near the Ryens’ home and close to a house where Cooper acknowledges he was hiding out until shortly before the murders. Additionally, Cooper’s DNA was found on cigarette butts recovered from the Ryens’ stolen station wagon, according to the Special Counsel.
The Special Counsel also reviewed testimony and evidence introduced at Cooper’s trial, records from three evidentiary hearings, and numerous habeas corpus petitions in state and federal court.
“Special Counsel carefully considered specific requests on behalf of Cooper for further inquiry and have concluded that there is no reasonable possibility that more investigation beyond what has already been conducted in this matter could affect the conclusion that evidence of Cooper’s guilt is conclusive,” the report says.