SAN QUENTIN (CBS SF/AP) — While not granting him the pardon he sought, Gov. Gavin Newsom has ordered an independent investigation into the conviction of Kevin Cooper, a death row inmate whose case has drawn national attention.
Newsom did issue pardons to two inmate firefighters who faced deportation and commuted the sentences of three people who were convicted of killings where they didn’t pull the trigger.READ MORE: House Speaker Pelosi Creating Select Committee To Investigate Jan. 6 Insurrection
Kao Ta Saelee and Bounchan Keola, who were born in Laos but came to the U.S. as young children. Each spent more than two decades in prison for crimes committed when they were teenagers: Saelee committed three armed convenience store robberies and Keola killed one person and wounded two others in gang-related drive-by shootings.
Both helped fight devastating California wildfires and Keola suffered a serious neck injury when a tree fell on him last fall. After being released from prison, however, they were eligible for deportation and each spent months in federal detention facilities.
Newsom said each man has demonstrated that he is living “an upright life” and both presented evidence that because of their convictions, they faced deportation and permanent separation from their families in California, Newsom said.
The pardons likely mean the men won’t face further threat of deportation and can regain their status as legal permanent residents.
“Being a Californian means believing that people can turn their lives around and deserve second chances but also that we are tied together and owe a duty to serve one another,” Keola said in a statement issued by the Asian Law Caucus, which represented him. “I have tried my best to earn that second chance and am thankful that the governor recognized that with a pardon today.”
Cooper, who says he was framed for the stabbing deaths of four people, including two children, at a suburban Los Angeles home in 1983.
The 63-year-old maintains he was framed and has been seeking gubernatorial clemency since 2016.
In his executive order, Newsom said he “takes no position” on Cooper’s guilt or innocence or whether to grant him clemency.
Newsom appointed a law firm to review court records and all facts and evidence in the case, including those that don’t appear in trial and appellate records, along with the results of DNA tests previously ordered by the governor.READ MORE: UPDATE: Coroner Identifies Man Killed in Juneteenth Mass Shooting at Oakland's Lake Merritt
The order said the tests had been completed, but Cooper’s lawyers and the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office have “starkly different views” about whether they support Cooper’s claims.
Cooper’s attorney, Norman Hile, called the order gratifying.
“We are confident that a thorough review will demonstrate that Kevin Cooper is innocent and should be released from prison,” he said.
Cooper was convicted of a 1983 attack in Chino Hills, east of Los Angeles. Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica and 8-year-old son, Joshua, were attacked in their sleep along with an 11-year-old neighbor, Christopher Hughes, who was a houseguest. Investigators said they were stabbed more than 140 times with an ice pick, knife and hatchet.
Joshua’s throat was slashed, but he survived.
San Bernardino County prosecutors said previous DNA tests showed that Cooper, who had escaped from a prison two days before the slayings, was in the Ryens’ home and smoked cigarettes in the Ryens’ stolen station wagon, and that Cooper’s blood and the blood of at least one victim was on a T-shirt found by the side of a road leading away from the scene of the murders.
Cooper claimed that investigators planted his blood on the T-shirt.
He argued that trial evidence “was manufactured, mishandled, planted, tampered with, or otherwise tainted by law enforcement,” according to Newsom’s order.
Cooper’s supporters have said other evidence, including untested hair samples, indicated there were multiple killers who were white or Hispanic.MORE NEWS: Animal Rights Group Sues Park Service Over Dying Elk At Point Reyes National Seashore
The case attracted national interest after New York Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristof, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California and reality television star Kim Kardashian urged officials to allow re-testing.