Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

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

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.

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.

District attorney defends prosecution of man convicted of killing father of basketball superstar Michael Jordan

District attorney defends prosecution of man convicted of killing father of basketball superstar Michael Jordan

It was the crime that caused the greatest basketball player in history to become a minor league baseball player who couldn’t hit a curve ball. And 20 years later, doubt has emerged over whether the man convicted of killing Michael Jordan’s father is actually the one who pulled the trigger.

Attorneys representing Daniel Green are asking for a new trial, arguing that James Jordan’s shirt was tampered with after his autopsy.

Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt said he didn’t recall any discrepancies with the shirt. Britt prosecuted the case and it would be an embarrassment to him if the conviction was overturned.

“I’m very confident in the manner in which I handled the case and the way the trial proceeded. They’re trying to change the narrative after the fact,” Britt said.

Britt said Green’s story evolved after he was tied to Jordan’s stolen belongings.

James Jordan is the father of former Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan. Green was convicted of James Jordan’s murder and sentenced to life in prison.

According to the Associated Press, the autopsy didn’t find a hole in Jordan’s shirt that matched a bullet wound in his upper right chest area. But that claim has been contradicted by an agent with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. The office of North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein is examining the issue.

“This newly discovered evidence of tampering adds to the growing list of legal concerns and factual evidence which add weight to the conclusion that not only does Daniel Green deserve a new trial but that he is innocent of the murder of James Jordan,” said Chris Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, in a statement sent to the Associated Press.

Defense lawyers say this brings doubt onto prosecutors’ claims that James Jordan was sleeping in his car when he was shot, and backs up their argument that there was a physical altercation between Jordan and another man, Larry Demery, before the killing occurred.

James Jordan was killed in July 1993 in North Carolina and his body was later found in a South Carolina swamp.

Green and Demery were convicted of the crime, with Demery cutting a deal with prosecutors and testifying against Green.

On the stand Demery said Green pulled the trigger, something Green has denied, although he has admitted to helping dispose of Jordan’s body, driving his his car and wearing his watch.

Demery was also sentenced to life in prison.

Michael Jordan retired from the NBA after his father was killed and tried to play baseball. But returned to basketball a few years later, after struggling in minor league baseball. He won six NBA titles with the Bulls and one NCAA championship with the North Carolina Tar Heels.

He is now the owner of the Charlotte Hornets NBA team.

More in Explainers

Florida prosecutors begin dealing with unanimous jury requirement for death sentences

Florida prosecutors begin dealing with unanimous jury requirement for death sentences

For decades Florida has had a death penalty system that allows prosecutors secure a death sentence with a simple majority, seven of 12 jurors, in favor.

No longer. In the past 18 months the U.S. Supreme Court has thrown out the state’s death penalty procedures and the Florida Supreme Court has ruledthat no one can be put on Death Row without the jury unanimously agreeing on at least one aggravating factor that justifies death. Last month the U.S. Supreme Court ended the entire situation when it refused to consider an appeal of the Florida Supreme Court decision.

An indication of how that will change the death penalty in Florida was on display last month in a Bradenton courtroom when jurors recommended the death penalty by a 7–5 vote for Andres “Andy” Avalos Jr, who was convicted of the first-degree murders of Denise Potter and James “Tripp” Battle III and the second-degree murder of his wife, Amber Avalos.

Two years ago that vote would have been enough to put Avalos on Death Row. Now, the death penalty is off the table. He will get sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

12th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Ed Brodsky, who prosecuted Avalos, saidseeking death was much harder now.

Florida has one of the largest death rows in America, but it has been shrinking this year as the Florida Supreme Court has thrown out the death sentences of 16 people because their death sentences were not unanimous. The total number of people on Death Row has dropped from just under 400 to 363, as of June 19.

Florida’s 20 elected prosecutors will have to decide whether to seek death again in cases where they couldn’t get unanimous jury support the first time. But prosecutors have only themselves to blame, they fought efforts to amend this law for years, even after the Florida Supreme Court encouraged the State Legislature to change the law to require juror unanimity in sentencing someone to death.

“The Florida Supreme Court’s ruling that jury recommendations for the death penalty must be unanimous is a long overdue recognition of the state’s fatally flawed capital punishment regime,” said Professor Mary Anne Franks of the University of Miami School of Law. “The prosecutors who relentlessly pursued death sentences despite being repeatedly placed on notice that the state’s death penalty regime was constitutionally defective should be held accountable for the emotional and financial costs they have imposed on victims’ families and on taxpayers.”

About 75 percent of the people on Death Row in Florida were put there with at least one juror dissenting.

Alabama is now the only state in the country that allows someone to be sentenced to death without the unanimous consent of a jury.

More in Podcasts