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Death Row inmate Kevin Cooper loses last appeal

November 30, 2009 | 11:56 am

A California death row inmate convicted of  gruesome murders in Chino Hills 26 years ago lost his last appeal today when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review his conviction.

Kevin Cooper, 52, was sentenced to death in 1985 in the murders of a Chino Hills couple and two children. He came within hours of being executed by lethal injection in 2004, when a federal appeals court stepped in and ordered a new hearing on his claims of evidence tampering and prosecutorial misconduct.

That review failed to convince a federal judge in San Diego that Cooper's guilty verdict was erroneous, and the inmate's appeal of that decision was rejected by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in May. The appeals court was deeply divided in its denial, however, with at least 11 of the 27 judges dissenting and some warning that the state was poised to execute an innocent man.

While the Supreme Court's refusal to review Cooper's case marks the end of his legal recourse, the death penalty has been on hold in California for nearly four years and no new date has been set for his execution.

Cooper has maintained his innocence in the murders throughout the 26 years since Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter Jessica and 11-year-old neighbor Christopher Hughes were found slaughtered in the Ryens' hilltop ranch house. Cooper, a convicted burglar and suspected rapist, had escaped two days earlier from the nearby state prison at Chino.

Cooper's lawyers had argued that evidence destroyed or lost by San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies pointed to three white men, including a convicted contract killer, as the perpetrators. Lawyers for the state attorney general's office, however, insisted the evidence of Cooper's guilt was "overwhelming."

-- Carol J. Williams

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