Who Is Kevin Cooper, Death Row Inmate With Case Re-opened by Gavin Newsom?

California Governor Gavin Newsom has ordered a new investigation into the quadruple-murder conviction of Kevin Cooper, who has spent more than 35 years on death row.

Cooper is now 63-years-old and was convicted in 1983 of four murders and sentenced to death. He has maintained his innocence but lost multiple appeals against the conviction. He remains on death row in San Quentin State Prison.

Newsom, a Democrat who opposes the use of the death penalty, has appointed international law firm Morrison and Foerster to act as special counsel to California's Board of Parole Hearings and carry out the fresh investigation.

Cooper was imprisoned in Chino, California in 1983 and was serving a sentence for burglary but escaped two days before the murders took place.

Three members of one family - Doug and Peggy Ryen and their 10-year-old daughter Jessica - and an unrelated 11-year-old boy named Christopher Hughes were killed.

They were stabbed 143 times with an ice pick, an ax, and a knife, according to The Los Angeles Times, and the bodies were discovered by Hughes' father.

The Ryens' eight-year-old son Joshua was slashed across the throat but survived. Joshua went on to relate contradictory versions of the attack. After being airlifted to hospital, he told a social worker and a sheriff's deputy three white men were the assailants but an hour later he said they were Latino.

Later that month, Joshua told a deputy that Cooper was not the killer after seeing his face on TV. Cooper is Black and his attorneys argued that the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department had destroyed or suppressed evidence showing that the killers were white.

Cooper was arrested about seven weeks after the murders and investigators at the time said there was evidence that he had been in a house nearby for two days after his escape. This evidence included cigarette butts, a button from a prison uniform, and a leather hatchet sheath.

Joshua Ryen gave videotaped evidence at the trial where he said that one man or possibly a shadow had been in the house.

Cooper was convicted and sentenced to death in 1985 but he has always maintained his innocence and has lost more than a dozen appeals. He was due to be executed in February 2004 but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay of execution.

Cooper's case received renewed attention in 2018 with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and then-Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) calling for DNA testing of evidence. Former Governor Jerry Brown issued an order to that effect before leaving office. In 2019, Newsom ordered additional DNA testing in an expansion of Brown's order.

"We are gratified that the governor has ordered an independent investigation," Norman Hile, an attorney for Cooper, said on Friday. "We are confident that a thorough review will demonstrate that Kevin Cooper is innocent and should be released from prison."

However, San Bernardino Attorney General Jason Anderson has said the new DNA evidence shows Cooper is guilty of the 1983 murders and that Newsom should "respect the findings of 38 years of decision making within the judicial branch that's confirmed Kevin Cooper's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt every time."

Newsweek has asked Kevin Cooper's attorney for comment.

Protesters Oppose the Execution of Kevin Cooper
Muranda Jacques and Leo Lopez of San Jose rest outside of California State Prison at San Quentin February 9, 2004 in San Quentin, California. The pair walked with other protestors from San Francisco in opposition to the execution of convicted killer Kevin Cooper. Governor Gavin Newsom has ordered a new investigation of Cooper's 1985 conviction. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images