The Walls That Racism Built

I was 18 when Kevin Cooper escaped from the minimum security California Institution for Men (CIM) where he was serving time for a nonviolent offense. I was working the early shift at a roadside diner, having just graduated from an integrated high school in New York, 3000 miles away from 12-year-old Paula Priamos’s home near the CIM in southern California.

Sometimes, in the search for justice, distance can be very important.

The year that Cooper escaped, 1983, was some ten years before the Brookings Institution’s John Dilulio used the term “superpredator” to describe minority youth, but nevertheless “tough on crime” rhetoric was rampant. I remember my senior year in high school being marked by racial tension. School authorities seemed anxious to read every instance of adolescent conflict as prelude to a “race riot.”

This was the national mood when Cooper, who is African American, escaped, when Douglas, Peggy, and Jessica Ryen and their houseguest Chris Hughes were murdered, and when 8-year-old Josh Ryen had his throat cut but miraculously survived.

Perhaps this mood had something to do with the fact that when the San Bernardino Sheriffs Department found out that Cooper had escaped, they dropped all other leads and went looking for him. There were more likely suspects–such as the three men that Josh Ryen initially identified, or the three blood-spattered men spotted in a bar near the crime scene that night, or the three men noted in a police log as driving a car that matched the Ryen’s stolen station wagon.

This mood was expressed more sharply at Cooper’s preliminary hearing where, outside the courthouse, members of the American Nazi Party carried signs demanding that the State “Fry the N*gger” and “Kill the African Troglodyte.”

I mention this because when I read Paula Priamos’s essay in the Los Angeles Times Magazine (“Prisons Without Walls, ” September 17, 2006) two things occurred to me. One is that she is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is understandable given her youthful proximity to such a horrible murder. The other is that the particular shape her trauma has taken–the desire for Kevin Cooper’s death–is a product of racism.

Long before I met Kevin Cooper, I knew that he could not have committed the crime for which he was convicted. I knew, not because of some faith in his moral fiber–I hadn’t met him–but because simple common sense told me that one man could not kill four people and mortally wound a fifth using a knife and a hatchet unless they stood still for it.

As I dug deeper into the case, my initial suspicions were confirmed. Doug Ryen was an ex-Marine, and Peggy Ryen was a horse trainer. There were loaded guns in the house. I believe Mary Howell, Peggy Ryen’s mother, who said in a TV special decades after the crime that the people in her family were fighters. Their murders were clearly the work of more than one person. To believe otherwise is to accept the racist idea that African Americans are super-powerful monsters.

Priamos bemoans the fact that Cooper’s execution was stayed, despite DNA tests-the first post-conviction DNA tests ever granted-that implicated him in the crime. She rejects the idea that this implication occurred because the evidence was tampered with, even though the State’s criminalist was found to have taken the evidence out of its locker for 24 hours to “examine it” without the prior consent or even knowledge of the defense. She rejects the idea that evidence could have been tampered with even though the Sheriff’s department is known to have destroyed a pair of bloody coveralls brought to them by a woman who thought her boyfriend-a white man-had murdered the Ryens.

I met Kevin Cooper in person for the first time in 2000. I had been studying his case for three years by that time, throughout the late 90s. Some more social context: it was during the late 90s that the LAPD Ramparts scandal broke. It was revealed that law enforcement officers were working in gangs to plant evidence on and falsely convict young men of color. Not long after, police in Philadelphia and Miami were found to be up to similar antics. There seemed to be a nationwide epidemic of evidence tampering and fabrication.

Given this context, it struck me as odd that many of the people in positions of authority I spoke to-including Attorney General Bill Lockyer and various members of the press-refused to entertain the idea that Cooper had been framed by the San Bernardino Sheriff’s department. Upon reflection, it is not odd at all. It is racist. Only someone who believes that African Americans are inherently criminal could believe that their vast overrepresentation in the nation’s prisons is not the result of a desperately biased criminal justice system in which evidence manipulation is a routine matter.’

Priamos also complains that Cooper has access to the press through a website maintained by his supporters. I encourage people to go to that website and read the dissent that led to the staying of Cooper’s scheduled execution on February 9, 2004.

Ninth Circuit Judge James R. Browning writes:

“Contrary to the State’s assurances, Cooper did not have a fair trial. Cooper has presented a sworn declaration of a state prison warden that, if believed, suggests that the State fabricated crucial evidence linking Cooper to the murders for which he has been convicted. Nor is the evidence of Cooper’s guilt overwhelming. Indeed, as the evidence mounts that the State used unreliable and fabricated evidence to convict Cooper, the evidence of his guilt correspondingly diminishes.”

Browning’s dissent has never found its way into the mainstream press. For those who will scoff at the Ninth Circuit’s supposed left-wing bias, I encourage you to recall that, on February 9, 2004, the very clearly conservative United States Supreme Court upheld the Ninth’s Circuit’s stay unanimously. And the evidence of Cooper’s innocence has been mounting ever since, leading the Ninth Circuit to grant him a new hearing on the merits of his claims of evidence tampering, evidence destruction, and civil rights violations.

I was 38 in 2004 when Kevin Cooper came within four hours of being executed by the state of California. I was preparing to enter the prison to witness the execution when the stay was announced. And, consequently, I know someone beside Paula Priamos who suffers from PTSD, and that is Kevin Cooper, who sits in his four-foot by nine-foot cell in San Quentin-which is far from the pleasure palace Priamos makes it out to be-fighting for a new trial and, by extension, his life.

ELIZABETH TERZAKIS is an editor at Haymarket Books. She can be reached at: