Will Gov. Schwarzenegger Grant Clemency?

December 22, 2010

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Kevin Cooper has been on death row in California for 25 years. There are major unresolved doubts about his guilt and many, including most recently New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, have called on outgoing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant him clemency and commute his sentence. 

The crime was undoubtedly heinous. Three members of a family (Douglas, Peggy and 11-year-old Jessica Ryen) and their 10-year-old houseguest (Christopher Hughes) were brutally murdered. But the one survivor, 8-year-old Joshua Ryen, originally said the attackers were 3 or 4 white men, and, seeing Kevin Cooper on TV, said Cooper (who is African American) was not the killer.

During the course of Cooper’s appeals, a dozen federal judges have disparaged the way his case has been handled. Important tests on physical evidence, five Ninth Circuit court judges wrote in a stinging dissent, were thoroughly botched by the federal district court:

“There is no way to say this politely. The district court failed to provide Cooper a fair hearing and … imposed unreasonable conditions on the testing …”

These judges pointed out that a test result the district court refused to consider suggested evidence had been planted, and concluded that Cooper “is probably innocent of the crimes for which the State of California is about to execute him.”

The handling of evidence in this case has been suspect from the beginning.  The reliability of Cooper’s conviction can never be guaranteed with any degree of confidence. Here at Amnesty International, we oppose all executions, no matter the circumstance, but even death penalty supporters should oppose putting someone to death when you can’t be sure they are guilty.

As in the case of Kevin Keith, when Ohio’s Governor granted him clemency despite believing he was probably guilty, and just as should happen for Troy Davis, whose conviction relied almost exclusively on shaky witness testimony, doubts about guilt should lead executives to grant clemency, if the courts can’t (or won’t) intervene.

Help us call on Governor Schwarzenegger to do just that in this case.