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    • An op ed article on a man sentenced to death in California, where there are doubts about his guilt.

      Sheriff’s deputies were also contacted by the woman whose boyfriend was a convicted murderer, recently released from prison, whom she suspected of involvement in the Ryen killings. She not only gave deputies his bloody coveralls but also told them that his hatchet was missing from his tool rack and resembled one of the weapons reportedly used in the attacks.

      But instead of testing the coveralls for the Ryens’ blood, the deputies threw them away–and pursued Cooper. After a racially charged trial, he was convicted of murdering the Ryens and Chris Hughes and is now on death row at San Quentin Prison.

      Gov. Jerry Brown is refusing to allow advanced DNA testing that might finally resolve the question of who committed the murders, even though Cooper’s defense would pay for it. Brown refuses to allow even advanced testing of the blond or brown hairs  that were found in the victims’ hands.

      This is the story of a broken justice system. It appears that an innocent man was framed by sheriff’s deputies and is on death row in part because of dishonest cops, sensational media coverage and flawed political leaders — including Democrats like Brown and Kamala Harris, the state attorney general before becoming a U.S. senator, who refused to allow newly available DNA testing for a black man convicted of hacking to death a beautiful white family and young neighbor. This was a failure at every level, and it should prompt reflection not just about one man on death row but also about profound inequities in our entire system of justice.

      With a good defense, Cooper might have prevailed. But his county public defender was overwhelmed and made a series of practical legal mistakes.

      “Kevin got convicted because they framed him and because he didn’t have a half-decent defense,” said Norman C. Hile, his current lawyer. Hile, now retired as a partner in the international law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, has volunteered on the case for the last 14 years because he fiercely believes in Cooper’s innocence.

      This is a familiar pattern: Inmates have third-rate defenders at trial, but after they are sentenced to death they get the help of brilliant free counsel; by then it is often too late to undo the damage.

    • Chris MacAskill

      Wow, Shay. I read that excerpt and thought "huh? That couldn't be right. Who is the source?" But it's Nicholas Kristof, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, an opinion journalist I respect deeply for his coverage of human rights abuses.

      Here's what he had to say about this piece:

      I’m using strong language, I know. But I went to San Quentin to interview Cooper, reviewed trial transcripts and other documents, spoke to innumerable people on and off the record, and in 34 years at The New York Times, I’ve never come across a case in America as outrageous as Kevin Cooper’s. So hear me out.

      I have been through the justice system a few times and a few things scare me. One is America is the only country in the world that elects prosecutors. And they are 95% white. And the public wants convictions, so to get elected, you'd better get them.

      Another thing is the courtroom is a form of theater in front of a jury. The accused is often paraded in prison garb and ankle chains into the courtroom, where the police sit up high on the witness stand in their most authoritative uniform and United States badge. It happened to me as a juvenile and it makes you feel like you have no chance, the jury will think the worst and of course believe the nice detective who is a pro at this and looks the part.

    • "Flawed" is a huge understatement. The op-ed piece more accurately calls it broken. The only unusual thing about this particular case is that it comes from California, which prides itself on being more reasonable, often with good reason. While I suppose it's worthwhile to call attention to individual cases--people find it easier to relate to specifics than abstractions--it's no secret that there are huge systemic problems.

      Mass incarceration, racial disparities and brutal conditions are just the start. It costs more to keep a person in prison than to provide a college education. For-profit detention center corporations lobby against justice reform, especially the draconian minimum sentencing guidelines for non-violent drug offenses.

      Inadequate resources for public defenders (and high legal costs) mean that an accused first offender is often forced into accepting a plea bargain rather than fighting the charges. This is often the first step into becoming permanently marginalized. Finding work, credit or housing become much more difficult. In many states, you can be disenfranchised for life. The net effect is to create and maintain a permanent underclass.

      I hope that Kevin Cooper's case is reexamined with modern forensics to provide definitive proof one way or another. But the bigger picture cries for attention.

    • Chris MacAskill

      It's really disturbing that the US has 4.4% of the world's population and 22% of its prisoners. We have by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. If anything, the chart below is reporting a lower incarceration rate for the US than numbers reported by organizations like PEW.

      Is it guns? Racial tension? Elected prosecutors? Money?

      In a nation that hates paying people to not work, that's a lot of people we're paying to not work while they're in prison and after they get out, because it's so hard to get a job once you've been locked up.

    • Incacerceration rates -- and who gets incarcerated -- are big issues.

      A separate issue is the death penalty. The reason I oppose it is precisely because of what that article describes. The state should never put to death an innocent person. It's murder. Mistakes -- deliberate or well-intentioned -- will always be made, because humans are imperfect.

    • Chris MacAskill

      One of the most amazing films I can remember seeing is The Thin Blue Line. A filmmaker goes to a prison in Texas and interviews convicts on death row. What he intends is to hear their stories on why they did what they did now that they are proved guilty and would seem to have nothing to lose by talking since they will be put to death anyway.

      But the inmates can't stop proclaiming their innocence and Errol Morris, the filmmaker, can't understand why they persist this way. So he picks one inmate to investigate his story and that becomes the basis of the film.

      Spoiler: the convict turns out to be innocent and is exonerated as a result of the film.

      Here's the thing, and this is common: he knew he was innocent so he didn't take his trial seriously because he trusted the legal system.

    You've been invited!