Capitol Alert

Death row inmate gets special DNA review in Jerry Brown’s final Christmas pardons

Gov. Jerry Brown looking at commutations for prisoners

Gov. Jerry Brown is looking at commuting some sentences for prisoners and said paroling prisoners decreases prison gangs and gives them hope of rehabilitation during an exclusive interview with The Sacramento Bee's Amy Chance.
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Gov. Jerry Brown is looking at commuting some sentences for prisoners and said paroling prisoners decreases prison gangs and gives them hope of rehabilitation during an exclusive interview with The Sacramento Bee's Amy Chance.

In one of his last acts as California governor, Jerry Brown on Monday ordered new testing of physical evidence in an infamous 1983 murder case.

Kevin Cooper, the defendant in the case, is on death row, but argues DNA testing will show he was framed.

Brown announced the order as part of his Christmas Eve clemency actions, which include 143 pardons and 131 commutations. They include pardons for several people who entered the country legally but now face deportation, as well as for two people affected by the Camp Fire in Paradise.

The actions cap Brown’s second eight-year stint as governor during he sought to reduce prison populations. With 283 commutations and 1,332 pardons, he’s granted more clemency requests in his last eight years in office than any of his last eight predecessors.

He has described criminal justice work in recent years as his attempt to undo damage done by harsh sentencing laws he signed during his first term as governor in the 1970s.

Brown worked in his second stint as governor to return to a sentencing system that allows more opportunities for parole, saying he could “clean up” a problem he created when he signed a determinate sentencing law in 1976. The number of prisons in the state has almost tripled since he first took office in 1975.

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“You’ve got to manage this,” Brown told The Bee in an interview earlier this month. “Having people locked up with zero hope... that’s the best way to build prison gangs -- to have tens of thousands of people locked up with no chance of getting out.”

Cooper, now in his 60s, is awaiting execution for the slayings of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter Jessica and 11-year-old neighbor Christopher Hughes in Chino Hills. Prosecutors had asked Brown to deny Cooper’s request for new testing.

His case has attracted national media attention and calls by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, and state Treasurer John Chiang for new DNA testing.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger twice rejected Cooper’s clemency petitions.

In his Monday order, Brown called for new testing of a t-shirt, a towel and the hatchet used in the murders.

“I take no position on Mr. Cooper’s guilt or innocence at this time,” Brown wrote. “But colorable factual questions have been raised about whether advances in DNA technology warrant limited retesting of certain physical evidence.”

Also on Monday, Brown pardoned former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, who was convicted on conflict-of-interest charges more than 25 years ago. He was accused of steering government contracts to a nonprofit run by his wife, according to Bee archives. He served almost four years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service.

Brown wrote that Honig has led an “honest and upright life” since he completed his sentence and has stayed involved in public education work.

He’s the second politician Brown has pardoned in recent months. Last month, Brown pardoned former state Sen. Rod Wright, who was convicted of felony perjury and voting fraud in 2014.

In making decisions about commutation, Brown said he considers the inmate’s behavior and sentence length. He says he often looks at people with very long sentences who have used state programs to improve their lives.

“Many of them avail themselves of programs,” Brown told The Bee. “They avoid bad behavior, they follow the rules, or if they did have bad behavior they change.”

Seven of Brown’s clemency attempts have been overturned by the state Supreme Court in recent weeks, marking the first rejections of a governor’s clemency attempts in at least half a century, according to the state’s Judicial Council.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect Bill Honig’s record of community service.

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