Today, California Gov. Gavin Newsom will reportedly issue an executive order for full DNA testing of all evidence connected to the case against Kevin Cooper, a black man convicted of killing four people in 1985 and sentenced to death.
This is unequivocally good, and something that should have happened long ago, as soon as the technology was available. Cooper’s defense has for years raised credible points to suggest he was wrongly convicted of killing Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10 year old daughter Jessica, and their 11 year old neighbor Christopher Hughes in 1983.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff, to his credit, has written about the case extensively. In May of last year, he wrote an interactive multimedia opinion feature that starkly laid out evidence that Cooper may have been framed for the crime. When the column was published online, Kristoff wrote that he got a call from California Sen. Kamala Harris, who for years served as the state attorney general, and whom he said had previously “showed no interest in the case.”
“I feel awful about this,” Harris told Kristoff, referring to her refusal, during her entire time as the state’s top law enforcement officer, to allow advanced DNA testing of the evidence in Cooper’s case. Following the column, Harris put out a statement linking to the piece in support of further DNA testing:
My career as a prosecutor was marked by fierce opposition to the death penalty while still upholding the law and a commitment to fixing a broken criminal justice system. I’ve long been an advocate for measures to improve and make our system more fair and just.
As a firm believer in DNA testing, I hope the governor and the state will allow for such testing in the case of Kevin Cooper.
As you can see, those remarks don’t make reference to her past positions on Cooper’s case. But Harris wasn’t alone in her disinterest; Jerry Brown also did nothing about the case in his years as attorney general and governor. (Brown eventually ordered limited DNA testing last year).
Now Harris is a major contender to be the 2020 Democratic nominee for president. Harris’ current presidential campaign has so far struck a weird balance between those two career paths—touting her record as a top cop while doing theatrically not-a-cop things like admitting she smoked weed and listened to rap. But in some cases, like Kevin Cooper’s, this disparity is striking. If Harris wants to be president, she should be pressed to clearly articulate how her views on criminal justice have changed since her time locking people up, especially on issues like marijuana legalization, immigration enforcement, and further criminalizing sex work.
Newsom, either through a moral clarity or political opportunism his predecessors lacked, finally called for the tests that could change Cooper’s life, 35 years after he was arrested. Harris will undoubtedly support this effort. Since Kristoff’s 2018 column, she has openly advocated for full DNA testing of all of the available evidence. But why, then, when she was in the greatest possible position of power to act, did she do nothing?
I reached out to the Harris campaign for comment about the case, then and now. I’ll update this post if I get a response—the people Harris is asking to represent deserve one. If Harris feels “awful” about this, she should tell us why.