Capitol Alert

Gavin Newsom orders new DNA testing in 1983 murder case after petition by death row inmate

Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered additional DNA testing in the case of death row inmate Kevin Cooper on Friday, the new California governor’s first action related to a clemency request since he was inaugurated in January.

Newsom’s executive order calls for new testing of hairs collected from victims’ hands in the 1983 murder of an adult couple and two children. Cooper, who was convicted of the slayings, says he was framed.

Newsom also authorized new testing of blood found at the crime scene, fingernail scrapings collected from the victims and a green button using modern technology to test for Cooper’s or another person’s DNA.

“I take no position regarding Mr. Cooper’s guilt or innocence at this time,” Newsom wrote in the executive order. “Especially in cases where the government seeks to impose the ultimate punishment of death, I need to be satisfied that all relevant evidence is carefully and fairly examined.”

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.

In one of his last acts as California governor, former Gov. Jerry Brown in December ordered new testing of other evidence including a t-shirt, a towel and the hatchet used in the murders.

Prosecutors had asked Brown to deny Cooper’s request for new testing.

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

Cooper’s case has attracted renewed media attention in recent years. Presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, has called for new DNA testing in the case.

Cooper is among more than 700 people on death row in California. The state hasn’t executed a prisoner in more than a decade.

California voters approved a ballot initiative in 2016 intended to speed up the state’s execution process. At the time, Newsom endorsed a competing ballot measure that would have ended the death penalty in California. That initiative failed by a narrow margin.

The night before he was inaugurated, Newsom said Brown warned him reviewing clemency petitions like Cooper’s would be among his most difficult tasks as governor.

“The weight of that is pretty heavy,” Newsom told a gaggle of reporters at his inaugural benefit concert last month. “The governor looks at dozens of those every single week. There’s a binder. Quite literally, every time I see him, he shows me the binder and he says, ‘This is one of the most important jobs that you will have.’”

Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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