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Spotlight: Kevin Cooper’s Case Exemplifies Decades of Systemic Failures

Protesters outside of California State Prison at San Quentin in 2004.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Spotlight: Kevin Cooper’s Case Exemplifies Decades of Systemic Failures


Kevin Cooper’s name has been in the papers in recent weeks, as it has been on and off for 35 years. This time, it was because Kim Kardashian visited him in prison, part of her advocacy for those she believes were wrongly convicted.

Cooper was sentenced to death for the hacking murders of Douglas and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old neighbor. The Ryens’ 8-year-old son, Josh, survived his throat being slashed.

A reality show star is among Cooper’s best hopes for exoneration, and the media is generally focusing not on the case, but on backlash against her. These are only the two most recent examples of how Cooper’s case exemplifies so much that is wrong with our system. Since his 1983 arrest, Cooper’s treatment has exposed one systemic failure after another.

Cooper describes his childhood as abusive and troubled. His first involvement with the system was at age 7, after he ran away from his adoptive family to escape beatings. He turned to shoplifting and marijuana use, ending up in juvenile detention. In his mid-20s, Cooper was sentenced to four years for burglary, but he wasn’t sent to an ordinary prison. He was sent to the California Institution for Men, in Chino, which, despite the conformist name, was founded in 1941 as an experiment in prison reform. It was built to alleviate overcrowding, violence, and oppression in California’s other prisons, which newspapers described as “powder kegs ready to explode.”

The man hired to imagine this new system was Kenyon J. Scudder, a veteran penologist who had ideas for how to improve the prison system he saw as archaic and inhumane. Under Scudder, the institution, nicknamed Chino, was rooted in the idea that “prisoners are people,” and it sought to treat those incarcerated with dignity.

Chino’s first class of 34 prisoners included those with convictions for minor offenses along with those who were convicted for violent crimes. Chino didn’t use terms like “warden” or “guards.” Scudder was the “superintendent,” and his guards were “supervisors,” mostly college-educated people who had never before worked in prisons. This was to avoid any punitive mindsets. Scudder de-emphasized security and weapons, and trained his staff in conflict resolution.  Prisoners chose their own clothing and their own jobs. Their cells were not locked, and instead of a 25-foot wall with gun towers, as was suggested, Scudder built only a five-strand barbed-wire fence. He encouraged loved ones to visit, permitting physical contact, and he refused to segregate on racial lines. Today, this kind of prison would be considered a quixotic dream.

“For a brief period of time, it seemed that other prisons around the world would follow Chino’s lead,” write Emily Nagisa Keehn and Dana Walters of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School. “In the early 1950s, prison experts at the International Penal and Penitentiary Congress agreed that open prisons should eventually replace traditional cell-based prisons for nearly all types of [prisoners].” In 1955, a United Nations resolution echoed the sentiment. But Chino eventually morphed into a traditional maximum security prison. Several factors doomed Scudder’s vision, all part of the tough-on-crime movement, but one high-profile escape was particularly damaging to the model: In 1983, Kevin Cooper walked out of the prison a day after arriving, and was soon the lead suspect in four gruesome murders.

It makes no sense––morally, financially, or logically––to ignore the good of any given endeavor because one person abused it. But what happened in Chino is part of a pattern wherein politicians act cowardly and walk away from progressive and promising models, usually at the expense of the least enfranchised.

The system was not done exposing its worst in Cooper’s case. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote an exhaustive and devastating column detailing the evidence indicating that Cooper was framed by law enforcement for the murders. “In 1983, four people were murdered in a home in Chino Hills, California,” he begins. “The sole survivor of the attack said three white intruders had committed the murders. Then a woman told the police that her boyfriend, a white convicted murderer, was probably involved, and she gave deputies his bloody coveralls. So here’s what sheriff’s deputies did: They threw away the bloody coveralls and arrested a young black man named Kevin Cooper.

As in so many cases, Cooper’s trial was, to put it mildly, racially charged. One man brought a noose around a stuffed gorilla to a hearing. According to Cooper’s current lawyer, “he didn’t have a half-decent defense.” The crime was high profile and law enforcement was under pressure to punish someone. Kristof dispatches with the evidence against Cooper by exposing law enforcement negligence, such as when the district attorney shut down the on-scene investigation “for fear, he said, of gathering so much evidence that defense experts could spin complicated theories.” Kristof also exposes probable lies, like when a deputy suspected of planting evidence claimed not to have entered the room where the evidence was found, but his fingerprints were found there. Various judges have concluded that Cooper was framed. Kristof notes that the bloody coveralls were not the only evidence pointing to a different culprit, but it was all ignored.

Cooper also faced politicians who cared more about saving face than saving the life of a possibly innocent person. Kamala Harris, as district attorney of California, refused to permit advanced DNA testing that could have exonerated Cooper. It was only after Kristof’s column was widely shared, and Harris was no longer in a position to help, that she reversed her position. Former Governor Jerry Brown waited until the very end of his term to finally order new DNA testing, but, as the Los Angeles Times reported, he “inexplicably stopped short of ordering all the testing needed.” Shortly after Gavin Newsom took office as governor, he ordered additional DNA testing. The results are pending.

Not everyone caught in the criminal legal system prompts backsliding on reform, and not everyone is hit with high-profile murder charges. Not everyone is framed. And very few have Kim Kardashian fighting for them. But plenty of people have been railroaded because of their race, their class, or their education. And plenty of people have been disbelieved because law enforcement says otherwise, regardless of how implausible the police story is. Plenty have faced arbitrary refusals of those in power to get to the truth. And a tremendous number have suffered because politicians rolled back reforms after isolated incidents of abuse. Cooper understands all this.

“I don’t have any confidence,” he told Kristof. “I don’t believe in the system.” Cooper believes that the criminal legal system is unfair to poor people and non-white people. “I’m frameable, because I’m an uneducated black man in America,” he said. “Sometimes it’s race, and sometimes it’s class.” He is writing a memoir. “That’s my motivating factor to get out of here, to tell my story and tell the truth about this rotten-a** system,” he said.

This Spotlight originally appeared in The Daily Appeal newsletter. Subscribe here.