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Newsom Orders More DNA Testing in Case of Family Hatchet Murders

Kevin Cooper, center, wanted for the slashing deaths of four people in Chino, is escorted to a car for transport to San Bernadino from Santa Barbara, Calif., after he was arrested by police at Santa Cruz Island on July 31, 1983. (AP Photo)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom today ordered new evidence testing at the request of a 61-year-old death row inmate convicted in the gruesome 1983 murders of a Chino Hills, Calif., family.

Outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown responded in December to the clemency request of Kevin Cooper — who was convicted of killing nearly an entire family at their home with a hatchet, knife and ice pick after escaping from a nearby prison — by ordering new DNA tests on four pieces of evidence including the hatchet handle and sheath.

Killed were Douglas and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter Jessica, and 11-year-old overnight houseguest and neighbor Christopher Hughes. The Ryens’ 8-year-old son, Josh, had his throat slashed but survived.

Brown stressed in that 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.

Newsom’s order said he likewise doesn’t take a position on Cooper’s guilt but needs “to be satisfied that all relevant evidence is carefully and fairly examined” in a death penalty case.

In addition to the four pieces of evidence Brown approved for retesting, Newsom ordered DNA testing of previously untested hairs from the crime scene, blood samples, fingernail scrapings from the victims, and on a green button that came from a prison uniform.

The governor noted that due to the age of the evidence further testing “may yield multiple DNA contributors of unknown origin.”

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) opposed the DNA testing as state attorney general, but last year said in a statement that “as a firm believer in DNA testing, I hope the governor and the state will allow for such testing in the case of Kevin Cooper.”

“My career as a prosecutor was marked by fierce opposition to the death penalty while still upholding the law and a commitment to fixing a broken criminal justice system,” she said. “I’ve long been an advocate for measures to improve and make our system more fair and just.”