30 November 2018
Abolish the Racist Death Penalty!
Freedom Now for Kevin Cooper!
(Class-Struggle Defense Notes)
Kevin Cooper, a black man framed up for the 1983 murder of a white family, has spent 33 years on death row in San Quentin prison. In 2004, Cooper was less than four hours away from being murdered by the State of California when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a stay of execution issued by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. That stay was granted after questions were raised over the prosecution’s evidence against Cooper in his 1985 trial. As one of the appeals court judges, William Fletcher, later wrote: “Kevin Cooper, the man now sitting on death row, may well be—and in my view probably is—innocent. And he is on death row because the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department framed him.”
Cooper’s case returned to the public spotlight earlier this year after the New York Times published a May 17 op-ed column by Nicholas Kristof that compellingly detailed the police frame-up. It began almost immediately after the brutally mutilated bodies of Douglas and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old neighbor were found in the Ryens’ house in Chino Hills, California, on 5 June 1983. Incredibly, the Ryens’ 8-year-old son Joshua, whose throat was slit and skull fractured, survived.
At the hospital, Joshua communicated to a social worker that the killers were three or four white men. This matched the coroner’s initial conclusion that there had been several killers who had used a hatchet, an ice pick and knives. But this and other evidence was thrown out by the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department as soon as they realized they could pin the murders on Cooper. A 25-year-old black man with a criminal record, he more than fit the police profile of a wanted suspect in racist, capitalist America.
Three days before the murders, Cooper had escaped from a nearby minimum-security prison, where he was serving a four-year sentence for burglary. He had then hidden out in a house next door to the Ryens before fleeing to Mexico. Evidence shows that Cooper checked into a Tijuana hotel on June 5. The next day, cops looked through the house where Cooper had hidden and found nothing. But as soon as Cooper became their prime suspect, “evidence” suddenly turned up, including a bloodstained button from a green prison uniform. Cooper’s was brown. A hatchet sheath was all of a sudden found in the house. Cigarette butts that the cops claimed were Cooper’s were likewise suddenly discovered in the ashtray of the Ryens’ station wagon, which had been stolen the night of the murders.
Buried was the testimony of local residents who reported seeing three white men driving the station wagon, as well as the accounts of witnesses who had seen three white men in bloody clothing in a nearby bar. Two bloody shirts were later found down the street from the bar. On June 9, a call was made to the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department by a woman saying that her boyfriend, a convicted murderer, had come home on the night of the Ryen murders in an unfamiliar station wagon, wearing bloody coveralls but not the T-shirt he had on earlier in the day. She turned the coveralls over to the police, who threw them away!
Cooper, who has maintained his innocence from the beginning, fought to have a DNA test done on a bloody T-shirt that had been found near the Ryens’ house. When the test, which was conducted in 2002, showed his blood on the shirt, Cooper insisted that it had been planted by the police. Further testing after the 2004 stay of execution revealed that the blood on the shirt included a chemical that the police use to preserve blood samples. When a vial of the blood taken from Cooper was tested, it was found to contain the DNA of Cooper and another person. In short, it’s likely that the police planted blood from the vial on the shirt and then topped it off with someone else’s blood to make it look like the vial hadn’t been tampered with. Nonetheless, the court upheld Cooper’s conviction and death sentence.
In his op-ed, Kristof noted that the defense attorney’s repeated requests for advanced DNA testing had been refused by California’s Democratic Party governor Jerry Brown, as well as by Kamala Harris, who was the state’s attorney general from 2011-17. Now a U.S. Senator and hopeful contender for the top slot on the Democrats’ presidential ticket in 2020, Harris immediately responded to Kristof’s column, declaring: “As a firm believer in DNA testing, I hope the governor and the state will allow for such testing.” The cynicism is breathtaking.
For his part, Governor Brown, who leaves office in January, has refused to grant Cooper’s request for DNA testing. When Kristof suggested that every day matters “for an innocent man on death row,” Brown simply shrugged that “California has 130,000 prisoners.” He should know. For years, Brown openly defied a Supreme Court ruling that conditions in California’s overcrowded prisons were so atrocious that they violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” In his previous stint as attorney general of California, which has the most death row inmates in the U.S., Brown similarly shrugged off the notion that anyone on death row could be innocent.
Kristof presents the case of Kevin Cooper as “the story of a broken justice system.” Far from it. The police frame-up of Cooper is an object lesson in how the racist injustice system of American capitalism actually works. As Cooper himself observed: “I’m frameable, because I’m an uneducated black man in America. Sometimes it’s race, and sometimes it’s class.” The cops, courts, prisons and military are at the core of a state apparatus whose purpose is the defense of the profits, property and rule of the bourgeoisie against the working class and oppressed.
The death penalty stands at the pinnacle of the state’s machinery of violence. In the U.S., legal lynching is rooted in the very foundation of American capitalism, which was built on black chattel slavery and continues to be maintained through the forcible segregation of the majority of the black population at the bottom of this society. Those condemned to death row have always been disproportionately black.
The fight for Cooper’s freedom is a cause that is in the interest of the multiracial working class and all opponents of the brutal racism, exploitation and oppression enforced by the capitalist state. Free Kevin Cooper now! Abolish the racist death penalty!
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(reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 1145, 30 November 2018)
Workers Vanguard is the newspaper of the Spartacist League with which the Partisan Defense Committee is affiliated.