- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Four months after taking office, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has landed in the middle of a death-penalty uproar that pits him against some of his fellow Hollywood luminaries.

Last week, Mr. Schwarzenegger refused to grant a clemency hearing for death-row inmate Kevin Cooper, a convicted murderer whose case has become a cause for a host of celebrities and civil rights activists.

That would have seemed to seal Cooper’s fate, except that on California’s death row, death doesn’t always mean death. Four hours before Cooper, 45, was scheduled to die, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted to stay his execution until further DNA testing could be done on two pieces of evidence related to the crime.

The dramatic last-minute reprieve brought cheers from the hundreds of anti-death penalty activists who gathered Feb. 10 outside San Quentin Prison to support Cooper.

Those supporters include actors Denzel Washington and Mike Farrell, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and former boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter. A few weeks ago, the top San Francisco law firm of Orrick, Harrington and Sutcliffe agreed to represent him, including former White House Special Counsel Lanny Davis.

It was Mr. Davis and other lawyers who persuaded the 9th Circuit to grant the reprieve over the objections of prosecutors, who argued that the evidence already had been tested.

Critics say it’s the latest case to illustrate California’s schizophrenic approach toward the death penalty. On the one hand, Californians love the death penalty: Since state executions were reinstated in 1978, voters consistently have reaffirmed their support.

On the other hand, only 10 inmates have been executed in the past 26 years, giving California one of the lowest executions-per-capita rates among the 38 states with the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

That comes even though California has more inmates on its death row — 632 — than any other state in the nation.

“Those that are slated for execution are rarely executed, and those sentenced to life rarely get life,” said Marc Klaas, a well-known victims’ advocate whose daughter, Polly, was slain in 1993.

Her murderer has been on California’s death row since 1996.

“The ultimate irony is that, in California, these guys guarantee themselves longer lives by getting on death row than their victims ever had,” Mr. Klaas said.

That’s already true of two of Cooper’s victims. In 1985, he was convicted of the 1983 murders of Douglas and Peg Ryen, both 41; their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica; and an 11-year-old neighbor, Christopher Hughes. Cooper was convicted of breaking into their Chino Hills, Calif., home and hacking and stabbing them with a hatchet and buck knife.

There was one survivor, 8-year-old Joshua Ryen, who survived a cut to the neck and testified at the trial. He maintains that Cooper is guilty.

San Bernardino County prosecutors say there was a “mountain” of evidence pointing to Cooper. Two days earlier, he had escaped from a nearby prison, where he was serving time for burglary, and was hiding out in a home near the Ryens’.

Cooper’s defenders argue that, as a black man and escaped inmate, he was a convenient suspect for police.

Mr. Schwarzenegger issued a statement addressed to the victims’ families saying that he shared “your frustration that closure to this chapter of your lives has been delayed.”

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