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California man facing execution as District Attorney Mike Ramos disputes substantial evidence that he is innocent

Many people don’t think Kevin Cooper belongs on California’s death row. But the prosecutor’s office that sentenced him more than 30 years ago maintains he is guilty, and wants to see him executed.

Many people don’t think Kevin Cooper belongs on California’s death row. But the prosecutor’s office that sentenced him more than 30 years ago maintains he is guilty, and wants to see him executed.

As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof pointed out in a recent column, there’s substantial evidence that Cooper is innocent.

“This case is a national embarrassment,” Kristof wrote. “It appears that an innocent man was railroaded, in part because he is black, and the government won’t even allow crucial DNA testing.”

Cooper has exhausted his right to appeals, and needs the help of California Governor Jerry Brown to avoid being put to death. A moratorium on the state’s death penalty ended in late 2016, and Cooper is likely to be the first person put to death if he doesn’t get relief from a court or a public official like the governor.

If Cooper is executed for the four murders he was convicted of back in the 1980’s, he will die with an enormous number of people believing he’s innocent. And for people who believe the death penalty system in America is broken, Cooper’s case will add more fuel to the push to end executions.

In a recent interview Cooper said he hoped the governor would keep an “open mind.”

“I am the only person in the history of the state to have five federal circuit judges say that ‘the state of California may be about to execute an innocent man,’” Cooper said.

One of those judges was William Fletcher, a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Fletcher dissented when the Ninth Circuit refused to rehear Cooper’s case. Fletcher was so distressed by the case he brought it up again as part of a lecture he participated in critiquing the death penalty.

“He is on death row because the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department framed him,” Fletcher said during his lecture.

Cooper’s case also disturbed Paulette Brown, the former head of the American Bar Association, so much that she asked the governor to intervene.

“Mr. Cooper’s arrest, prosecution, and conviction are marred by evidence of racial bias, police misconduct, evidence tampering, suppression of exculpatory information, lack of quality defense counsel, and a hamstrung court system,” she said in her letter to the governor. “We therefore believe that justice requires that Mr. Cooper be granted an executive reprieve until the investigation necessary to fully evaluate his guilt or innocence is completed.”

But Cooper remains on death row, and his chances of getting off anytime soon appear unlikely despite solid claims of police misconduct.

“The evidence of police tampering is overwhelming,” Kristof wrote. “When lawyers working on Cooper’s appeal asked for DNA testing on a T-shirt believed to belong to the killer, the lab found Cooper’s blood on the shirt — but also something astonishing: The blood had test tube preservative in it! In other words, it appeared to have come from the supply of Cooper’s blood drawn by the police and kept in a test tube.”

Cooper was convicted and sentenced to death for the June 1983 murders of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their daughter Jessica, 10, and Chris Hughes, an 11-year-old neighbor who was at the Ryen’s house at the time the crime occurred. The youngest Ryen child, 8-year-old Joshua, had his throat slit but survived the attack.

Joshua later told police that the attackers were three or four white men. Kevin Cooper is black.

But San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos has steadfastly insisted that Cooper is guilty, and should be executed.

Ramos criticized Brown for writing the letter for the governor. In a post to his Facebook page Ramos said he was “disgusted” by Brown’s comments.

“He killed a family and two little children, and left their family members to suffer a lifetime of pain,” Ramos posted. “The American Bar Association has no business commenting on a case in San Bernardino County and calling into question the integrity of this office.”

Ramos has not commented on Kristof’s column, but has previously said that all allegations of misconduct in the case have been rejected by state and federal courts.

Ramos has been a vocal death penalty supporter, spending a year campaigning for Proposition 66, which was designed to lessen the amount of time death penalty appeals take. Voters approved the measure, but the California Supreme court is now deciding whether it is constitutional.

Ramos was also cited by the Fair Punishment Project as an overzealous prosecutor in its report, Too Broken To Fix, that spotlighted outlier counties that overused the death penalty.

“A review of direct appeals from the past decade reveals that the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office has continuously sought the death penalty for very young adults, individuals with mental illness, and an individual who was convicted of capital murder even though he was not the triggerman,” the report said.

And despite multiple exonerations and numerous problems with the quality of defense lawyering, Ramos has “ claimed that minimum competency requirements for post-conviction defense attorneys handling capital cases are “ridiculous” and “a delay tactic,” and he has suggested that the “countless” pleadings filed by the ACLU and its supporters are responsible for “clogging up our justice system,” the report said.

Cooper was almost executed in 2004, getting a stay of execution only hours before he was supposed to be put to death.