Socialist Action /July 2001
More Police Misconduct in Kevin Cooper
By PAUL McKIM
In the struggle to prove his innocence, death-row
inmate Kevin Cooper has always had to contend with police corruption. Although
he won the right to DNA testing last December, his defense team recently
made a shocking discovery-key evidence just about to undergo testing may
have been tampered with. The results of the DNA tests could determine whether
Cooper lives or dies.
Kevin Cooper is currently serving the 16th year
of a death sentence at San Quentin State Prison in California. In 1985 he
was convicted of murdering a Southern California family in their home, a
crime which evidence indicates he didn't commit. The only eyewitness, for
example, repeatedly told police that Cooper was not the killer. (For further
details on the case and evidence of Cooper's innocence see Socialist Action,
His conviction was due in large part to the deliberate
steps taken by authorities to target Cooper. For example, police consciously
choose not to investigate another man who was likely involved with the murders,
and destroyed a pair of bloody coveralls that could have linked him to the
On the other hand, police went out of their way
to "find" evidence implicating Cooper, which often turned up under
A bloody shoe print on a bed sheet that matched
a pair of shoes worn by Cooper was central to his conviction. It was not
found until over a week after the murders, when Cooper was already the only
suspect, and not at the scene of the murders, but in the crime lab. A pair
of shoes identical to Cooper's was also in the lab at the time.
When his attorneys went back to the evidence locker
years later to search for DNA evidence, they discovered that the print had
been cut out of the sheet. Authorities in charge of the evidence could not
William Baird, the officer who found the shoe print
and other evidence placing Cooper at the crime scene, has a well-established
record of corruption. By his own admission he was using narcotics at the
time of Cooper's trial, and he was fired shortly afterward for stealing
heroin from the evidence locker both for personal use and to sell to drug
Dan Gregonis, a criminalist from the San Bernardino
sheriff's department, analyzed a drop of blood found on a wall near the
room where the victims were killed. He said the blood came from an African
American and linked it to Cooper. But on the stand at the trial, Gregonis
admitted that after he received a sample of Cooper's blood, he changed one
test result to make it match Cooper's.
With these and other incidents of misconduct in
its record, the state fought long and hard to prevent DNA testing that could
exonerate Cooper. The test results could draw attention to this shameful
police record and further expose the inherently flawed nature of the death
penalty. The state capitulated in December only because of growing public
pressure and a new law granting testing to death row inmates.
But in May, the issue of police misconduct once
again reared its ugly head. Records from the San Bernardino sheriff's department,
where some of the DNA evidence was stored, show that in 1999 the evidence
was checked out overnight by Gregonis, the same criminalist who admitted
to changing Cooper's test results during his trial. He still works in the
Scientific Identification Division (SID), where the evidence is kept.
Among other items, inventory records indicate that
the evidence in his possession included the very blood drop that Gregonis
tested for the trial and claimed was Cooper's, along with an actual sample
of Cooper's blood. The evidence also contained a cigarette butt scheduled
to undergo testing and a swab of Cooper's saliva. The saliva could easily
have been transferred onto the cigarette.
Interestingly, it was the prosecution, which has
always opposed any testing, that suggested this cigarette be included in
the items to be tested. Although we cannot know for sure what occurred,
planting Cooper's saliva would not be out of line with the previous actions
of police investigators.
The legal team is outraged that Gregonis would
be allowed any access to this evidence, which is of life and death importance
for Cooper, considering his previous role in Cooper's frame-up and the implications
for his career if Cooper is exonerated.
"I cannot think of a legitimate reason for
him to have had the evidence released to him," stated Cooper's lead
attorney, Robert Amidon, in a letter to state officials. "As you might
suspect, we are most suspicious of these events." The defense has prepared
a motion for an evidentiary hearing on this matter, which it intends to
The state has been hard pressed to come up with
a legitimate explanation for Gregonis's actions. In a May 21 letter to Amidon,
San Bernardino Supervising Deputy District Attorney John Kochis stated,
"He [Gregonis] informed me that the activity ... was the result of
my request in August of 1999 to determine if certain items were still in
possession of the sheriff's department."
This explanation is questionable, considering that
the existence and location of all evidence in possession of the sheriff's
department is recorded in the written inventory. Furthermore, the claim
that Gregonis simply wanted to see what was there does not explain the fact
that he kept the materials for over 24 hours.
Gregonis himself hasn't offered any explanation
for his actions, except through Kochis. On May 31 he told journalist Leslie
Kean that he had been "ordered not say anything about that" by
his superiors. Melody Morino, the SID officer who signed the evidence back
in when Gregonis returned it, also refused to respond to questions from
Cooper believes that it is likely that tampering
occurred, considering the lengths to which the state has already gone to
seek his execution. "These people are intent on murdering me,"
he told me during a recent visit to San Quentin. "To them, the end
justifies the means."
Cooper said he wasn't surprised by the news that
tampering may have occurred. "This kind of thing happens all the time
in this so-called criminal justice system," he explained.
In late June, Cooper's attorneys discovered another
possible incident of tampering when they went to the San Bernardino sheriff's
department to retrieve the DNA evidence for testing. To their surprise,
it had already been removed from storage before their arrival.
Defense attorney William McGuigan notes, "When
we went to get it a guy from the original investigation of Mr. Cooper's
case had collected all of the evidence and put it into a little paper bag.
It certainly was an amazing performance."
This was a flagrant violation of an agreement reached
between the defense and the state of California in June. "We had structured
the agreement very carefully to try to avoid anything like this from happening,"
McGuigan stated. The agreement specified detailed procedures for removing,
photographing, and packaging the evidence with both parties present. This
violation, by someone with past connections to the prosecution, raises serious
questions about what other misconduct may have occurred.
The evidence was shipped to the Department of Justice
DNA Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., where the tests will be performed over
the next two to three months. Many pieces of evidence will undergo testing,
but it only takes one with Cooper's DNA planted on it to send him to his
death. Dr. Edward Blake, head of the testing team, will be scrutinizing
the evidence for signs of tampering.
The many corrupt practices employed by the state
to execute Cooper should serve as a vivid reminder of whose interests this
"justice system" really serves. If the state is given the power
to kill in this racist, class society, it will always mean injustice for
the poor and exploited.
"Situations like the one I'm in are the reasons
why we can't have the death penalty," says Cooper. "They show
that you can't trust the politicians, prosecutors, and the state to be honest."
Justice For Kevin Cooper! Abolish The Death Penalty!
Socialist Action /July 2001