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The Framing of Kevin Cooper: Potentially Innocent Man Has Spent Half His Life on Death Row

In his new true-crime book, author J. Patrick O'Connor says that convicted murderer Kevin Cooper "is, in a word, a scapegoat."

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On February 20, San Quentin Prison (just north of San Francisco) will be the site of a groundbreaking  Occupy San Quentin demonstration linking Occupy Wall Street with the anti-prison movement. Inside on San Quentin’s death row is a man named Kevin Cooper, whose case for innocence is widely considered to be one of the most compelling today. When the Ninth Circuit Court ruled against Cooper’s final appeal in 2009, Judge William A. Fletcher wrote in his  101-page dissenting opinion that “the State of California may be about to execute an innocent man.”

Kevin Cooper’s controversial 1985 conviction and death sentence is the subject of a new book by veteran journalist J. Patrick O’Connor, titled,  Scapegoat: The Chino Hills Murders and The Framing of Kevin Cooper. O’Connor is the editor of and the author of  The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal (Lawrence Hill, 2008). 

For several years, O’Connor researched the brutal 1985 murders of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their daughter Jessica, 10, and her friend, Christopher Hughes, 11, which took place inside the Ryens' Chino Hills home in San Bernardino County, CA.  Scapegoat chronicles how despite abundant evidence that the murders were actually committed by three white men, the district attorney instead targeted a prison escapee named Kevin Cooper, who had been hiding out inside a nearby house at the time of the murders. O’Connor concludes that Kevin Cooper is innocent, and he argues that the police and prosecution orchestrated a rather sloppy frame-up that has nonetheless been upheld by the federal appeals courts.

Last week, while on a book tour in the San Francisco Bay Area (view schedule  here), O’Connor sat down for a video interview with Prison Radio (watch video  here). 

Prison Radio: How did you get involved in Kevin Cooper's case?


J. Patrick O'Connor: During the fall of 2008, I was in the Bay Area on a book tour for  The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal.  During the tour, supporters of Kevin's approached me at various venues and asked me to consider writing a book on Kevin's case.


PR: How did you go about writing this book?


JPO: I took on this project with no preconceived notions of Kevin's guilt or innocence. Each case is different, radically so.


My first step was to read and notate the trial transcripts, documents of over 8,000 pages.  I then read all the police reports, witness interviews, and various newspaper accounts. I reviewed the most shocking crime scene and autopsy photos I've ever seen -- and those I will never forget.   The autopsy reports on the four victims spoke of an incredibly frenzied killing field inside the Ryens' master bedroom.  


Finally, I read all of the appeals and the judicial rulings.  By this time I was ready to begin interviewing various people involved in Kevin's trial and his subsequent appeals.


PR: What's the main obstacle to researching a case that is 25 years old?


JPO: The biggest problem is that a number of key people involved in the investigation and trial have died, have retired, or have simply forgotten important factual details.  


Another obstacle is that, because Kevin technically still has appeals open to him, the San Bernardino County D.A.'s Office refused to discuss the case with me.  Nonetheless, I was able to interview Kevin's trial attorney, his investigator, and the lead prosecutor at his trial as well as many other people familiar with Kevin's trial and appeals.  For important background on the Ryens, I was able to interview Peggy Ryen's half-sister and Doug Ryen's sister.

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