California Gov. Jerry Brown’s Christmas granted 143 pardons and 131 commutations for Christmas, including a handful of refugees and immigrants that he hopes to spare from deportation by scrubbing their criminal histories.
Brown also responded to the clemency request of Kevin Cooper — a death-row inmate convicted of killing four members of a Chino Hills, Calif., family at their home with a hatchet, knife and ice pick in 1983 after escaping from a nearby prison — by ordering new DNA tests on four pieces of evidence including the hatchet handle and sheath.
Brown stressed in the order that he takes “no position as to Mr. Cooper’s guilt or innocence at this time, but colorable factual questions have been raised about whether advances in DNA technology warrant limited retesting of certain physical evidence in the case.”
“The purpose of this new testing is to determine whether another suspected person’s DNA, or the DNA of any other identifiable suspect based on a match in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database, is present on the items tested,” the outgoing governor continued. “Given the nature of the testing requested, and the fact that the murders in this case occurred before the advent of DNA technology and related evidence handling protocols, both parties acknowledge the distinct possibility that further testing may yield multiple DNA contributors of unknown origin. As such, if the only result of further testing is to yield either no additional DNA matches, or only DNA from unknown contributors, this matter should be closed.”
San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos argued that DNA testing on items including a bloody T-shirt and discarded cigarettes had already put Cooper at the scene and in their family’s stolen station wagon. The defense asserts that Cooper’s blood was planted on the T-shirt in order to frame a black man for the crime.
The California Supreme Court blocked Brown’s attempt to commute the sentence of Kenny Lee, convicted of robbing and murdering a cab driver in 1992. It’s the seventh time the court has stepped in to use its power to stop the outgoing governor from issuing sentence commutations for killers in recent weeks.
Brown also granted pardons to five Cambodian refugees brought to the country when they were 5 years old or younger, and now face deportation because of their criminal pasts. He likewise pardoned a Honduran immigrant facing deportation.
While the orders don’t automatically stop federal deportation proceedings, Brown’s actions allow the immigrants’ lawyers to argue that the federal government’s assertion that criminal histories qualify them for deportation is now no longer applicable.
Brown also pardoned Heather Burnett, who escaped the Camp Fire in November and lost her home to the flames, of past drug charges. The governor pardoned her husband, Jason Burnett, for drug-related crimes at Thanksgiving.
Brown is able to grant more requests for pardons and clemency until he leaves office Jan. 7.