The U.S. Supreme Court late Monday let stand an appeals court decision halting the execution of a man who was convicted of hacking four people to death in 1983 but who insists that a review of the evidence will prove his innocence.
The demand by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that evidence in the case get a fresh look after 18 years of appeals came just hours before Kevin Cooper was to be executed by injection. The Supreme Court later unanimously denied a request by the state of California to reverse the appeals court decision.
The appeals court had granted a stay to consider whether DNA evidence connecting Cooper to the crime should be retested amid repeated claims that he was framed by law enforcement.
"No person should be executed if there is doubt about his or her guilt and an easily available test will determine guilt or innocence," wrote the majority. They said a federal judge should reopen the case and order new tests on blond hair and a bloody shirt — tests which Cooper says will exonerate him.
"The public cannot afford a mistake. Neither can Cooper," added appellate court Judges Barry Silverman and Johnnie Rawlinson in a separate opinion. They said the execution should be stayed, but only for as long as it takes to test the shirt for evidence of a preservative that would indicate that Cooper's blood was planted.
Cooper's attorney, Lanny Davis, cheered the appeals court ruling.
"What this means is that for the very first time, one court and one neutral fact-finder can hear all of the evidence that the jury was not allowed to hear," Davis said. "This suggests not only that Kevin Cooper can be found innocent once and for all, but that there may be three murderers out there who need to be found and prosecuted."
Supreme Court Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg also said that they would have stayed the execution based on a separate appeal from Cooper himself.
The government expressed confidence tests will confirm Cooper's guilt, and that he will be executed soon.
"We are confident the results of future tests will not cast doubt about Cooper's guilt," said Hallye Jordan, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill Lockyer.
Cooper's plea for clemency was recently denied by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the first such decision to cross the governor's desk. Schwarzenegger said the evidence of Cooper's guilt was overwhelming.
Cooper's appeals have won support from celebrities such as Denzel Washington, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and actor and anti-death penalty activist Mike Farrell — who announced the Supreme Court's decision to nearly 300 protestors outside the gates of San Quentin State Prison.
"Thank you for letting the governor know he was wrong," Farrell said to thunderous applause.
"This is part of a struggle across the nation to remove a system with flaws," Jackson told the crowd. "With the help of some very good lawyers ... evidence emerged that the jury and judge never heard."
Mary Ann and Bill Hughes, the parents of 11-year-old victim Christopher Hughes, were on the grounds of the prison late Monday, where they had been preparing to view the execution. They could not immediately be reached for comment on the latest developments.
But Bill Hughes has said he's convinced Cooper was the killer and should be executed. "I think it's justified. Particularly in this case, they were savage and brutal murders," he said in a telephone interview late Sunday.
Cooper was convicted of stabbing and hacking to death Douglas and Peggy Ryen, both 41, their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, and Hughes after escaping from prison in 1983. The Ryens' son, Joshua, then 8, survived a slit throat.
Cooper claims DNA evidence was planted, but the courts have balked at new tests, saying there was no evidence of tampering. Cooper's attorneys also insist they have new evidence, producing a woman Sunday who said that on the night of the murders, she saw two men covered in blood at a bar near the scene.
The appellate court ruled the law authorizes renewed DNA testing of blood evidence linking Cooper to the crime, and whether he can seek testing of hair found in one of the victims' hands. The hair has not undergone forensic testing.
John Kochis, who prosecuted Cooper, said that the hair was from the victim's own head. However, DNA testing was not available in 1984, when authorities came to that conclusion.
In its ruling Monday, the appeals court said Cooper must get a chance to refute evidence that only recently has come to light or was not disclosed at trial.
For example, authorities at the time said the bloody footprint could have come only from a prison-issued tennis shoe. But a former prison warden says such shoes were commonly sold at retail stores.
The court also noted that Joshua Ryen initially said three or four men committed the murders, and that when he saw a picture of Cooper on television, he said Cooper was not the killer. Ryen has since said he believes Cooper was the killer.