Kevin Cooper case: Was the wrong man convicted in the 1983 Chino Hills massacre?

Nearly 20 years ago a death row inmate wrote to "48 Hours" that he was framed for the murder of four people. Was evidence planted? New DNA tests may finally answer that question.

Kevin Cooper: Letter from San Quentin

Last Updated Feb 22, 2019 12:56 PM EST

Produced by Lisa Freed, Marcelena Spencer and Dena Goldstein  

This is a story about a horrific massacre and a death row inmate's claims of innocence. Kevin Cooper's case has drawn worldwide attention, including from Pope Francis and Kim Kardashian West. The heartbreaking story about the brutal assault that left four dead and one young survivor in Chino Hills, Calif., also raises questions about the initial police investigation, the loss of key evidence, and whether someone else is actually the killer.

"Nearly 20 years ago, I got a stack of letters from an inmate at San Quentin Prison," "48 Hours" correspondent Erin Moriarty reports. "His name is Kevin Cooper – and he wrote that he had been framed, as he put it, 'for something that I didn't do.'"

Moriarty and "48 Hours" began exploring the case, the investigation, and Cooper's claims of innocence when she got the letters, and her reporting continues to this day.

In 1983, someone brutally murdered Doug and Peggy Ryen, their daughter Jessica, 10, and a family friend, Christopher Hughes, 11. Josh Ryen, then 8, was the only survivor.

Police were under pressure to find the killer, and the community was terrified. Almost two months after the murders, Kevin Cooper, a convicted burglar who had escaped a nearby minimum security prison, was arrested and charged with the killings.

"I cannot take responsibility for murders I did not commit," says Cooper, who was convicted of killing four people and the attempted murder of another. He was sentenced to death.

"You have a sensational crime," says New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, "and also a case tainted with racism."

In 2002, post-conviction DNA testing did not exonerate Cooper, but it raised significant issues with the process. Cooper was scheduled to die in February 2004, but the 9th Circuit federal appellate court stepped in and stayed the execution. Cooper finally got his wish for additional testing on Christmas Eve 2018. The testing hasn't occurred yet.

Will new DNA technology free Cooper? Or will it just solidify what prosecutors believe – that Cooper was the killer? Moreover, what about other possible suspects, including Lee Furrow, a paroled killer that Cooper's defense team believes is responsible? Furrow told Moriarty in 2000 he had "nothing to do with any of this."

MASSACRE IN CHINO HILLS 

In 1983, on a ranch surrounded by beautiful rolling hills, a savage massacre took place.

NEWS REPORT: The Ryens and neighborhood boy Christopher Hughes were found hacked and stabbed to death.

Paul Ingels:  It's a very affluent community. There's a lot of ranches up there, a lot of horse owners. This is upper middle class, virtually crime free … it shook the community.

It shocked law enforcement as well.  Back in 1983, Paul Ingels was a detective in a neighboring county.

Paul Ingels: We're talking about four people brutally murdered in one room, and coming across that, it was just astonishing for the deputies that arrived there.

Erin Moriarty: Would you say it's among the most brutal cases you've ever had to deal with?

Floyd Tidwell: Yeah, mm-hmm. …On a scale of one to 10 it was a 10.

At the time, Floyd Tidwell was sheriff of San Bernardino County.

Floyd Tidwell: Seemed to be a frenzy involved in the killing. …it gave you that impression by the amount of activity that took place there. It made you think that there had to be more than one person to do all of this. …and then we got information … three men had been seen at the house that day … we thought maybe that was the answer to it.

As bloody as the crime scene was, in 1983, forensic testing was limited -- and there was little evidence left behind. Nothing was taken from the Ryen home, except the family's station wagon.

Floyd Tidwell: A lot of people were going out and buying guns in the community … People were scared to death.

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On June 4, 1983, Doug and Peggy Ryen and their daughter Jessica were brutally murdered in their Chino Hills, Calif. home.  Christopher Hughes, an 11-year-old neighbor who was spending the night,  was also killed. Mary Howell/Hughes Family

With good reason. It was hard enough to understand why Doug and Peggy Ryen would be so viciously butchered, but who would slash and kill children?  Their 10-year-old daughter Jessica Ryen and 11-year-old neighbor Chris Hughes, who was spending the night.  Eight-and-a-half-year-old Josh Ryen, the only survivor, was barely alive when he was rushed to the hospital.

Erin Moriarty: How would you describe that time for you and Josh?

Mary Howell: It was horrible, very horrible.

His maternal grandmother, Mary Howell, told "48 Hours" back in 2000, that she never left his side.

Mary Howell: His head was all bandaged, and the little kid couldn't talk. … but he wrote on a paper, "How's Mom and Dad?" … And I had to tell Josh that, "Mom and Dad and Jessica are dead." … So, he just cried and says, "Why didn't I die, too?  I want to be with them."

Erin Moriarty: And what did you say to him?

Mary Howell: Well, I just -- felt like 1,000 knives were cuttin' through me. Wasn't easy. But … I just had to be up for Josh.  … if I break down too that wouldn't be good for Josh.

But once she was alone, Howell says, the tears never stopped.

Mary Howell: I cried from the minute I left the hospital 'til I got home. Cried all night, cried all next day, all the way to work.  …Did that for a year.

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"This was gonna be their Christmas card," said Mary Howell of the Ryen family. Pictured from left: Josh, Jessica, Peggy and Doug. Josh was the sole survivor of the deadly attack. Mary Howell

Howell's daughter Peggy and son-in-law Doug had followed her into the family business. They were all chiropractors, and like Mary, the Ryens also raised Arabian horses.

Mary Howell: Peggy … loved horses. So did Jessica.

Mary Howell [looking at photos]:  That was Jessica's colt. 

Erin Moriarty: They look like really happy children.

Mary Howell:  Yeah. They were very happy children, very happy.  Their mother saw to it that they were.

After the murders, Howell took over raising her grandson, Josh. He was 28 when Moriarty interviewed him.

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When he later spoke to Moriarty, Josh Ryen, now in his late 20s, had few memories of that awful night. "I wish I could remember... it just won't come back to me though," he said.   CBS News

Erin Moriarty: Do you think about your family?

Josh Ryen:  Yes -- probably every day.  There's something that reminds me of my sister, my mom or my dad, or my friend Chris.

Erin Moriarty:  How did you know something was wrong that night?

Josh Ryen:  A scream.

Erin Moriarty:  Do you remember whose scream?

Josh Ryen:  No.  I think it was my mom's.

Paul Ingels: He then heard his little buddy, Christopher Hughes, yelling for help. "Help, Josh. Help, Josh."

Josh Ryen:  My throat was slashed … and I got stabbed here [points behind his left ear] and hit by an ax here [move his hand above his forehead]. … I think it's a screwdriver that they said punctured my back into my lung, broke three ribs.

Erin Moriarty:  You're a miracle, you know that?

Josh Ryen:  Yeah. 

While Josh and his grandmother mourned the senseless deaths, the search for the killers was on -- multiple killers.

Paul Ingels: The original word that we got, that they thought it was three white, possibly Hispanic people. That was the first word that we got.

Deputy Sheriff Dale Sharp, who had rushed to the hospital, was one of the first to question Josh.

Erin Moriarty:  How did you communicate with Josh if he couldn't talk?

Deputy Sheriff Sharp [holding Moriarty's hand to demonstrate]:  I took his hand, like this, and I said, "Josh, I'm going to ask you some questions.  If the answer's yes, then you squeeze my hand. And if it's no, then don't squeeze my hand."

In spite of his severe injuries, Josh tried to answer Sharp's questions about the attack.  

Deputy Sheriff Sharp: When we got to the point of asking him how many people were there, I went, "One, two, three," and he squeezed my hand.

Erin Moriarty: Three people when things went crazy.

Deputy Sheriff Sharp: Right.

Josh had also indicated the attackers were white or Hispanic.  But just days after the murders, police got a break which changed their focus. Down the hill from the Ryen's ranch was a vacant house. Deputies searched it and found evidence that somebody had been hiding out there and had taken off the night of the murders. The intruder turned out to be a convicted burglar named Kevin Cooper, who had escaped from a nearby minimum-security prison.

Paul Ingels: They started putting two and two together and identified him as the suspect.

Investigators concluded that Josh then was simply confused about seeing three people, and in June 1983 they launched a massive manhunt to capture Cooper.

Paul Ingels:  I wanted to be the one to find him … I wanted to get this guy. 

Paul Ingels joined others in law enforcement hunting Cooper down.

Paul Ingels: When you're hunting somebody, if I'd had seen him, I would have told him to freeze.  If he would have ran, I would have shot him. 

Almost two months after the murders, Cooper was caught and arrested in Santa Barbara.

Erin Moriarty: When Kevin Cooper was arrested, did you have any question that he was, in fact, the person who killed the Ryen family?

Paul Ingels:  Everybody believed that he was the one who had done it.

After all, who's going to believe that a prison escapee hiding out in a house just 125 yards from the victims' home and who took off the very night the family was slaughtered -- was innocent?

THE EVIDENCE

In San Bernardino County, police and prosecutors were convinced they had the killer behind bars.

D.A. Dennis Kottmeier [2000 interview]: This is a very cold-blooded individual. If he had to kill to escape, he would.

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Within days, investigators focused on a suspect: Kevin Cooper -- a serial burglar who had escaped from a nearby prison two days before the murders.  California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation

And according to then-District Attorney Dennis Kottmeier, that's the reason Kevin Cooper murdered the Ryens and Christopher Hughes:  the prison escapee desperately needed money and transportation out of the area.

Days after the murders, the Ryens' car was discovered almost 50 miles away in a Long Beach parking lot.

1983 NEWS REPORT: Police eagerly searched the car for clues.

At a later search, they found two cigarette butts.

Paul Ingels:  It's tobacco that's typically issued to inmates. 

Erin Moriarty: That's pretty damning.

Paul Ingels: That points to Kevin Cooper again. 

But there were also troubling clues inside the vehicle. There was blood found in the car -- oddly, on three of the seats. And none of Cooper's fingerprints were found -- not in the car and nowhere inside the Ryen home.

Sheriff Floyd Tidwell [to reporters]: We have evidence in our possession that places Kevin Cooper at the crime scene.

What Sheriff Tidwell says investigators did find inside the Ryen home were shoe prints that matched the kind of shoes worn by prison inmates.

Sheriff Floyd Tidwell [to reporters]: We have some bloodstains in the house.

In the hallway, away from the gory crime scene, was one single, tiny drop of blood that a state expert said matched Cooper's blood type. Down the road from the Ryen home they located one of the murder weapons -- a hatchet -- that investigators believe came from the house where Cooper was hiding out and where a sheath was also recovered.

D.A. Dennis Kottmeier:  The evidence is strong.

And both the D.A. and sheriff say, Kevin Cooper seemed to fit the bill.

Floyd Tidwell: We started looking at his background, found out that he was wanted in Pennsylvania.

They discovered that Cooper grew up in Pittsburgh and spent years in and out of juvenile detention centers and jails.   

Paul Ingels: Kevin Cooper is a burglar by trade. 

Back then, Paul Ingels was a police detective.

Paul Ingels: He breaks into houses, he steals things, he takes things

And he was good at breaking out of prison when he got caught. There was also an accusation of rape, but Cooper strongly denies it and was never charged.

He moved to California, and shortly afterward, the determined thief was arrested again.  But less than 24 hours after being moved to the minimum-security section of the men's prison in Chino, he escaped -- hiding out in that vacant house near the Ryen home.

Paul Ingels: The circumstantial evidence is stronger than any I can ever recall. …Everybody believed that he was the one who'd done it.

And when Cooper was finally arrested, he was paraded before the cameras -- adding to the racially charged atmosphere surrounding this case.

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"This was hanging from the light pole … This is the kind of thing that was happening at the time and … This is the first day of the preliminary hearing," Paul Ingels explained of a stuffed gorilla hanging in effigy outside the courthouse. KCBS

Cooper's trial had to be moved more than 100 miles to San Diego.

D.A. Dennis Kottmeier [to reporters before the trial]:  We're seeking the death penalty as we have all along.

Dennis Kottmeier prosecuted Cooper.

Josh Ryen, now 10, didn't testify. Instead, Kottmeier showed jurors video of Josh, with his grandmother by his side, answering questions a year-and-a-half after the murders:

D.A. KOTTMEIER:  Did you ever see anybody in the house that didn't belong there?

JOSH RYEN: You can't really tell at night, 'cause, you know, it could be anyone.  It could be my mom or something.

D.A. KOTTMEIER:  What did you see?

JOSH RYEN:  I don't know, but, like, I saw almost like a shadow or something.

Sole survivor of Chino Hills massacre describes what happened

Josh no longer remembered seeing three white or Hispanic attackers … only a shadow:

D.A. KOTTMEIER:  How many shadows did you see?

JOSH RYEN:  Just one.

D.A. KOTTMEIER:  Just the one?

Kottmeier, convinced Cooper was the killer, believed Josh was mistaken when he was first questioned. That instead, the three men he described had actually come to the ranch earlier that same day, looking for work.

Erin Moriarty [to Kottmeier in 2000]: Why didn't you ask him directly, "Did you see who killed your family?"

Dennis Kottmeier:  Because I didn't want him to ever feel that the conviction rested on his shoulders.  Because we had such a strong case, we didn't need to put that burden on him, and I refused to do it.

Cooper always denied killing the Ryen family and Christopher Hughes … or ever being inside the Ryen home. He even took the stand in his own defense.

Dennis Kottmeier: The big question is was there sufficient evidence to illustrate the guilt of Kevin Cooper?  And the answer to that is yes.

After deliberating for almost two weeks, the jury convicted him of first-degree murder. Cooper was sentenced to death.

Erin Moriarty: And do you believe that the right defendant was convicted in this case, Kevin Cooper?

Dennis Kottmeier:  Absolutely.

Erin Moriarty:  Do you have any doubts at all?

Dennis Kottmeier:  None.

But from the beginning, Mary Howell has always had doubts.

Mary Howell: I still can't believe that one person could -- could do all that to my family. There's five of them, and I just know that they didn't stand in line saying, "I'm next."

Paul Ingels: She's not convinced that Kevin Cooper did it. … Typically, victims or victim's family, they don't have doubts. 

And typically, cops who hunt down murder suspects don't have doubts, either.  But in 2000, Paul Ingels, now a private investigator, was working pro bono on Cooper's case.  

Paul Ingels:  I'm trying to find out what the truth of the matter is.

And that's how this odd couple, who should be on opposite sides, found themselves working for the same goal.

Mary Howell:  He's like me.  Whatever it takes, let's find the truth.

Paul Ingels: We're close friends.  I love her dearly. …We're not asking to let the guy go, we're just trying to get the truth.  If the government doesn't want to get to the truth, then we all have a problem.

ONE KILLER -- THREE DIFFERENT WEAPONS?

By 2000, 17 years had passed since the Chino Hills massacre. Kevin Cooper was awaiting execution in California's San Quentin prison. But private investigator Paul Ingels and Mary Howell still had questions about what happened that horrific night. 

Mary Howell: Why was my family murdered, you know? Why? And who did it?

It didn't make sense that Cooper – a prison escapee who needed money and a vehicle to get out of the area – would kill anyone.

Paul Ingels: He's a burglar by trade. When he goes into a house, regardless of what happens, he's gonna burglarize the house.

The Ryens' station wagon had been parked in the driveway with the keys inside, and cash was left on the counter.

Paul Ingels:  If, indeed, Kevin Cooper did this murder, why didn't he do the burglary? … He left the money there, it doesn't make sense.

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When police recovered the Ryen's station wagon nearly 50 miles away, they found blood on three of the seats. KCBS

Why would Cooper take the car only to ditch it some 50 miles out of his way when he was headed south to Mexico?

Paul Ingels: Everybody agrees.  Prosecution, defense, everybody.  He's in Mexico the day after the murders.

And if Cooper did the murders alone, why was that blood found on three different seats in the car?

Mary Howell: It's just hard for me to believe that one person did all that.

Paul Ingels: One of the reasons Dr. Mary really believes that there was more than one assailant … she will describe her daughter, Peggy, as a fighter.  She was strong, she was a fighter. 

Peggy's husband Doug was no pushover, either.

Mary Howell: About six foot … about 180, maybe … He was strong.  He was an MP in the Marines.

What's more, Doug and Peggy owned guns and kept them close by.

Paul Ingels: Now here's some of the guns that were found … There was a gun right over here in this bureau that they did not get to.

But more troubling to Ingels: the lethal wounds appear to have been caused by at least three weapons.

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The hatchet that was found at the crime scene San Bernardino Sheriff's Department

Paul Ingels: Trial exhibit 42 - this is the hatchet that was found at the crime scene.

The hatchet was discovered along a road near the Ryen's house. Never found were a knife and an ice pick or screwdriver that were said to have been used. So how did this one man butcher so many people using three different weapons?

Paul Ingels: He's got two hands … I guess he -- you're saying he was wearing like a utility belt of murder weapons when he entered the residence.

Prosecutor Dennis Kottmeier's explanation?

Dennis Kottmeier: He's ambidextrous. He could use either hand equally well.

Paul Ingels: That's, really, a great philosophy except for one little fact.  There was three weapons.  I don't care how ambidextrous you are, you can't hold three. 

Which means Cooper would have to be very skillful and canny. His fingerprints weren't found and the only physical evidence that tied him to the crime scene was that tiny single drop of blood – so small it's not even visible in an evidence photo – found down the hall from where the attacks took place. It can be seen on a paint chip.

Paul Ingels: It's called A-41.

Paul Ingels: One drop all by itself just sitting there.  It was an unusual place to find it. … and that's why it's problematic.  If you get cut, you don't drop one drop of blood. Everybody knows that.

Investigators also didn't find any of Cooper's hair in the house, so Ingels wondered whose hair was clutched in 10-year-old Jessica's right hand?

Paul Ingels: She has several strands of long, blonde hair.

As for those shoe prints found in the Ryen home – it turns out the prison-issued sneakers were also sold retail.  But the biggest problem, Ingels says, may be the crime scene investigation itself.

Paul Ingels: It was bungled from the very beginning.

Evidence was contaminated when the sheriff's department allowed more than 70 people to walk through the Ryen house.

Paul Ingels:  That's unheard of. … that's Police 101.

Making matters worse, within 48 hours of the massacre, D.A. Dennis Kottmeier ordered the crime scene dismantled. The evidence was stored in a warehouse that wasn't air-conditioned. 

Norman Hile, one of Kevin Cooper's defense attorneys, blames that decision for creating problems that have stymied this case for so many years.

Norman Hile: The result was … the evidence was basically lost. …There could 've been analysis of blood spatter, of the bodies … how many people were the attackers … what weapons were wielded by which of them. …That was prevented by them dismantling the crime scene.

So, questions linger -- particularly about the number of attackers. While the only survivor initially told investigators there were three assailants, by trial, his memory had changed:

[Video deposition]

D.A. KOTTMEIER:  How many shadows did you see?

JOSH RYEN:  Just one.

D.A. KOTTMEIER:  Just the one?

Still, Josh Ryen could not identify that shadow. And back in 1983, while Josh was still in the hospital, Cooper's picture was broadcast on the news.

Mary Howell [1985]: When we were in the hospital, when Cooper's picture came on, I said, "Josh, do you recognize that man?" And he said, "No."

And when Moriarty interviewed Josh years later, she asked him about what he had seen. 

Josh Ryen: A head -- like a shadow of -- a big afro, which my mom also had big hair.

Erin Moriarty: You don't remember the face that went with it.

Josh Ryen [shaking his head no]: Uh-uh. 

Could it have been Cooper?

Josh Ryen: I cannot say he was there. 

Yet, on June 4, 1983, the day of the murders, Kevin Cooper didn't wear an afro. His hair had been tightly braided.

Josh Ryen: I wish I could remember. …it just won't come back to me though. …I just wish I had more answers.

And so did Paul Ingels. Fifteen years after Kevin Cooper was sent to death row, the private investigator was convinced Cooper's case deserved another look.

Paul Ingels: There's a lot of evidence that says that perhaps he didn't do it. 

Like a tan "Fruit of the Loom" T-shirt found down the road from the Ryen's home.

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"This here is a photograph of the T-shirt. These little circles indicate where blood was found on there," Paul Ingels explained. San Bernardino Sheriff's Department

Ingels believes that T-shirt was worn by the killer.  It was spattered with blood – some spots consistent with Doug Ryen's blood type. Nothing connected it to Cooper.

Erin Moriarty: if it wasn't Kevin Cooper then what you're sayin' is that person could still be out there, or those persons.

Mary Howell: It could be, could be.

Erin Moriarty: And is that a concern of yours?

Mary Howell: Yes.

But Mary Howell is prepared

Erin Moriarty: Do you still have a gun?

Mary Howell: My shotgun, yeah. It would make a big hole in a person.

ANOTHER POSSIBLE SUSPECT?

Shortly after the Ryens and Christopher Hughes were killed in Chino Hills, another possible suspect emerged: an ex-con named Lee Furrow.  He was dismissed by authorities, but he had caught the interest of private investigator Paul Ingels.

Erin Moriarty: There's one person you're looking at.

Paul Ingels: Right. … He's in Pennsylvania. … This picture was taken late 1982 or early 1983. … about the time this crime occurred.

DREXEL HILL, PA | 2000

In 2000, Ingels was keeping an eye on him for Mary Howell and her grandson Josh -- the only surviving witness.

Erin Moriarty: Why do you keep an eye on him?

Paul Ingels:  So that I know that he can't get to Josh.  I want to make sure that he's not back in California.

Furrow came to Ingels' attention through police reports and Diana Roper, Furrow's ex- girlfriend.

Erin Moriarty: Are you taking a risk by doing this?

Diana Roper: Oh, yeah.

Paul Ingels: Diana Roper is quite a character.  Tough broad. …supreme white power, she's a racist. …She's certainly not doing this because she wants to help Kevin Cooper.  I mean, there's just no question about that. …she doesn't think that an innocent man should die.

Diana Roper:  The people I was runnin' with told me just to keep my mouth shut.

Erin Moriarty: Why?  Why did they?

Diana Roper: I don't know -- because they said it was better a black man hanged than a white man. … I don't care what color he is. … He didn't do it.  

Diana Roper believed that it was Lee Furrow who killed the Ryens, as she told Moriarty in 2000.

Diana Roper: There's no doubt in my mind.

That's because she knows he's killed before.

Diana Roper: Just an evil, evil person. … If you look at him, you look in his eyes, you can see it.

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"There's no doubt in my mind." Diana Roper believed that it was Lee Furrow who killed the Ryens and Christopher Hughes, as she told Erin Moriarty in 2000. Diana Roper

Furrow strangled 17-year-old Mary Sue Kitts in a targeted execution back in 1974 -- retaliation for talking about a burglary. 

Diana Roper: He told me that he threw her into the Kern River. He bragged about it.

Her body has never been found, but Furrow admitted to the murder and copped a plea by testifying against Clarence Ray Allen, who ordered the hit.  It was while Furrow was in prison that he met Diana Roper, who was visiting another inmate.

Erin Moriarty:  And this is the guy you started to date?

Diana Roper:  Yeah, yeah.

At the time of the Chino Hills murders, Furrow was on parole and living with Diana Roper. It was a life of sex and drugs.

Diana Roper: His rage – he had no control over it. He was just -- he had no control.

It was what happened in the early morning hours of June 5, 1983 -- the morning after the Ryens were killed -- that would forever link her to Kevin Cooper's case.

Diana Roper: And it was like early, early morning … a car pulled up.

Roper recalled Furrow coming into the house.

Diana Roper:  I mean, when they came in through the door you could feel something just eerie, real horrible.

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At the time of the Chino Hills murders, Furrow was on parole and living with Diana Roper. Diana Roper

She remembers he was wearing dark coveralls.

Diana Roper:  He went into the room, into the closet … and he dropped the coveralls.

Two days later, she was in her closet.

Diana Roper:  And I looked down and here was these coveralls … and I picked them up, and as I picked them up, the more I picked them up, then I saw the blood.

And there's more.

Diana Roper:  That's not what he left in.  I laid his clothes out for him.

Remember that T-shirt found near the crime scene that Ingels believes was worn by the killer? Roper says Lee Furrow was wearing one like it the day of the murders.

Diana Roper: It was like a beige, light brown colored beige.

And that hatchet police said came from the house where Cooper was hiding out? Roper said Furrow also had one.

Diana Roper: He kept all his tools on the back porch, hanging on nails.  And as soon as they said, I walked back there and the hatchet was the only thing missing. 

She called the sheriff's office about her suspicions.

Diana Roper:  I remember two cars came out. …  I tried to tell them that this has to do with the Chino murder. … they thought I was on drugs or crazy.  God is my witness, I was clean.  I was not on drugs.  I know what I saw. 

She gave deputies the bloody coveralls she found.

Diana Roper: And they took them -- they laid them over on the car, on the police car.

The deputies took the coveralls and wrote up a report, but it never went any further and the evidence was never sent to a lab for testing. Instead, six months later, one of the deputies tossed out the coveralls.

Erin Moriarty: What was your reaction when you found out that the coveralls had been destroyed?

Diana Roper: Oh, man. …I cannot believe they destroyed such an important piece of evidence. 

Back in 2000, we asked Floyd Tidwell, the San Bernardino sheriff at the time of the murders, how this could have happened.

Erin Moriarty: Wouldn't you say that taking in coveralls that appear to be covered with blood, not sending them to a lab, not having them tested, and throwing them away before trial would be highly unusual?

Floyd Tidwell:  Mm-hmm [affirms].  I don't know that that happened.

Erin Moriarty: That did happen.

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A "disposition report" shows the coveralls were "destroyed" and described as having "no value" -- discarded with the approval of the deputy's supervisor. CBS News


In fact, a "disposition report" shows the coveralls were "destroyed" and described as having "no value" -- discarded with the approval of the deputy's supervisor.

Erin Moriarty: But doesn't that concern you that maybe not all the evidence was available at Kevin Cooper's trial?

Floyd Tidwell: Not on -- I can't be concerned unless I know about it.

Erin Moriarty: But it was something that happened when you were sheriff.  It was your sheriff's department.

Floyd Tidwell: Hey, let's bring this to a screaming halt right here, OK. That's enough of that crap [walks off camera and rips off his microphone].

And there is other evidence that points to more than one killer. Mary Wolfe and Christine Slonaker reported that on the night of the murder, they were at the Canyon Corral Bar, just down the road from the Ryen's house, when three guys came in.

Christine Slonaker: These fellas came in the back door, and they were kind of fallin' all over each other.

Erin Moriarty: They were Caucasian?

Christine Slonaker: Uh-huh [affirms].

They came over to where the women were sitting; one was wearing coveralls.

Christine Slonaker: I realized at that time that he was just covered in blood, spattered in blood.

Mary Wolfe: It was spotted … he had a light-colored shirt on so it was -- you know, it showed up. Even though the bar was real dark, you could still see it.

He blamed it on a bloody nose, but, Slonaker, trained to draw blood samples, didn't buy his story.

Christine Slonaker: And being a licensed phlebotomist, you don't lose that much blood in a nose bleed.

Erin Moriarty: When you first heard that the Ryens' been murdered, what was your first thought?

Christine Slonaker: The guys in the bar.

The jurors at Kevin Cooper's trial were told about Diana Roper and the missing coveralls. But they never got to hear about the three men at the bar because Slonaker and Wolfe didn't come forward until long after Kevin Cooper was sentenced to death. And when they did, others at the bar had conflicting accounts.

Mary Wolfe: I don't know if he's guilty or innocent, but I just feel really uncomfortable and uneasy about it.

Christine Slonaker: It just leaves reasonable doubt, that's all.

Paul Ingels: Needless to say if we had those coveralls, they could have tested them. What if some of the blood on the coveralls would have been closely matched to that of one of the victims? … Unfortunately, because the sheriff's department destroyed those coveralls, we can never do that.  

Erin Moriarty: Why would the sheriff's department try to protect a guy like Lee Furrow?  He's a bad guy.  He's a killer.

Paul Ingels: They're not trying to protect Lee Furrow. Let's make sure we understand what's going on here.  They've got their man, and they don't want anything to screw that up.  They're not about to let somebody come in and muddy the water and screw up a conviction. That's not gonna happen.

So "48 Hours" decided to ask Lee Furrow about the Ryen murders ourselves.

Erin Moriarty: Do you think Lee Furrow is going to want to talk to me?

Paul Ingels: I think the chances are slim and none, and slim's out of town.

LEE FURROW'S STORY

Back in 2000, "48 Hours" hired Paul Ingels to lead us to Lee Furrow.

Paul Ingels: Lee Furrow is a sociopath.

Erin Moriarty: You say that without any hesitation.

Paul Ingels: Oh, absolutely.

Surprisingly, Furrow agreed to an interview.

Lee Furrow: Here I am and I'm willing to talk to anybody.

moriarty-furrow.jpg
CBS News

So, we asked him about Diana Roper turning in those bloody coveralls.

Lee Furrow:  I know nothing of the coveralls. … I wear Levis and T-shirts and stuff like that. I don't wear coveralls.

Erin Moriarty: Why should I believe you and not Diana?

Lee Furrow: 'Cause I'm a good person. Yeah.

Erin Moriarty: You're a good person?

Lee Furrow [looks down]: Yes, I am. Yes.  I've made mistakes in the past and I've paid for my mistakes.

Erin Moriarty: You consider killing just a mistake?

Lee Furrow: Yeah, it was a mistake.

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Lee Furrow strangled 17-year-old Mary Sue Kitts in a targeted execution in 1974 -- retaliation for talking about a burglary.  

Erin Moriarty: You killed a young woman at someone else's behest?

Lee Furrow: Yes. Yes, I did.

Erin Moriarty: According to testimony in the court, you strangled her.

Lee Furrow: Well.

Erin Moriarty: Is that correct?

Lee Furrow:  Yes.

Erin Moriarty: And then how was she disposed of?

Lee Furrow: Dumped in the river.

But that was all he was admitting.

Erin Moriarty:  Can I ask you point-blank, did you kill the Ryen family?

Lee Furrow:  No, I did not.

Erin Moriarty: Or Christopher Hughes?

Lee Furrow:  No, I did not. … I had nothing to do with any of this.

Furrow says he was at a concert. It's the same thing he told authorities when they interviewed him a year after the Chino Hills murders.

Lee Furrow: Evidently, they found no validity in the story and released me.

Paul Ingels: The police did a very milquetoast interview of Lee Furrow. It's a horrible interview. 

Ingels says the interview lasted just 22 minutes.

Paul Ingels: Why didn't they ask the tough questions? … They really didn't probe it because they had their guy in Kevin Cooper.

But Furrow insists he told San Bernardino deputies the truth.

Lee Furrow: I went down voluntarily, took a lie detector test, the whole thing.

Erin Moriarty: You took a lie detector test?

Lee Furrow: Yes, I did take the lie detector test.

That's not true says Paul Ingels. 

Det. Paul Ingels: He lied. Why did he lie?

Good question.  But according to Dennis Kottmeier, it's irrelevant.

Dennis Kottmeier | Former district attorney:  The big question is was there sufficient evidence to illustrate the guilt of Kevin Cooper?  And the answer to that is yes.

Erin Moriarty: Was there any evidence found at the scene that could be tied to Lee Furrow?

Paul Ingels: I don't know. It was never checked. …I'll guarantee you this, if they didn't have anyone in custody … they would have probed that a lot more, and I also bet you that coveralls would not have been thrown away.

Which takes us back to Diana Roper. Furrow thinks she contacted the sheriff's department out of spite.

Lee Furrow: it was just a girlfriend being mad 'cause I was dating another girl in town. And it was just completely absurd.

Erin Moriarty: How do I know you're not just setting up Lee Furrow?

Diana Roper: Because I –

Erin Moriarty: I mean, he ran off with your best friend.

Diana Roper: We both were sleeping with her, so what did it matter.  You know, I mean it was no big deal. I gave him to her.

Paul Ingels: Do I know for sure he's involved?  Of course not. Do I know for sure Kevin Cooper is innocent? Of course not, but there's all these questions lingering.  If you want the answer, it's real easy.  Do the DNA testing and we'll get closure for everybody.

DNA testing wasn't available when the murders occurred in 1983, but in 2000, California passed a law allowing inmates to ask for post-conviction testing. Kevin Cooper hoped to be the first death row inmate to use it.

Mary Howell: Everybody knows that I want to know the truth.

Mary Howell, Paul Ingels and Diana Roper wanted the same thing, and they hoped the state would test some of the most significant pieces of evidence -- especially the tan T-shirt.

Diana Roper: I think it should be done.

Erin Moriarty: You could have just let this go.

Diana Roper: I can't. How could I let it go … that young boy.  I can't even imagine what he lives with every day. … it's just not right.

It turned out Josh Ryen also supported DNA testing.

Josh Ryen: I want to know if he really did it.

With no clear memory of the massacre, Josh told "48 Hours" he had grown up wondering if the wrong man had been punished for the crime.

Josh Ryen: I couldn't live with myself knowing that, well, there could have been a chance that he didn't do it.  That's not right. 

In 2001, the state agreed to test some of the evidence for DNA: that bloodstained paint chip known as A-41, saliva on those cigarette butts, the hairs found in Jessica's right hand, and some of the blood stains on that T-shirt.

By then, Kevin Cooper had been on death row for 16 years. Everyone was anxiously waiting for the results.

Mary Howell: We need the DNA testing to prove something and we'll go from there.

Josh Ryen: I think it's great. It clears a name or it points the finger at him.

The testing was completed in July 2002 and Kevin Cooper says he couldn't believe it. The paint chip and the two cigarette butts all tested positive for his DNA. The tan T-shirt that had never been connected to Cooper suddenly was.

Norman Hile | Cooper's attorney: He was-- shocked. He was-- absolutely-- certain that foul play had occurred.

Cooper immediately claimed the tested evidence had to have been tampered with or planted by authorities. As for the hairs in Jessica's hand, there wasn't enough DNA to test.  But Cooper's fate was sealed: he was on track to be executed.

Erin Moriarty: Does that make you feel confident that Kevin Cooper was definitely involved in this?

Josh Ryen: Yeah … It's pointing at him.


While Josh Ryen expressed relief, his grandmother Mary Howell, remembering what Josh had originally told investigators, still had her doubts.

Mary Howell: I just cannot see one man doing all that that he did and handle three instruments. … I'm still not convinced that this is the whole truth.

And she may be right. Kevin Cooper may not have been the killer at all.

Was Kevin Cooper Framed?

COOPER'S EXECUTION STAYED

Kevin Cooper, after 19 years on death row, was scheduled to die by lethal injection on Feb. 10, 2004.

Erin Moriarty: Would you go watch him die?

Josh Ryen: Yes.

Erin Moriarty: You would need to do that?

Josh Ryen: Yes. He was there. So, he needs to pay for that.

Erin Moriarty: If Kevin Cooper is executed, you believe they'll be killing an innocent man?

Mary Howell: Yes, I do.

SAN QUENTIN | 2004

On Feb. 10, 2004, Kevin Cooper's date with death was set. And then, with just hours to go, the 9th Circuit federal appellate court stepped in and saved Cooper's life. He later described that moment to "48 Hours" correspondent Erin Moriarty by phone.

Erin Moriarty: How close did you come?

Kevin Cooper: I came within three hours and 42 minutes of being strapped down to that gurney and physically tortured with lethal poison.

After the court stayed his execution, attorney Norman Hile, working pro bono, joined Cooper's defense.

Norman Hile: I think Kevin is innocent. And I also think that he was the victim of a horribly racist prosecution. And I just don't give up.

For the next four years, Hile fought to get Cooper a new trial, petitioning court after court. But the boxes of legal documents continued to pile up.  Mary Howell still refused to say it was over.

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Sadly, the 93-year-old grandmother never got the answers she hoped for. In 2008, Mary Howell died. Kevin Cooper had been on death row for 23 years. CBS News

Mary Howell: Everybody knows that I wanna know the truth … why my family was killed. Who did it? Why? … and I don't want to die without knowing it.

Sadly, the 93-year-old grandmother never got the answers she hoped for. In 2008, Mary Howell died. Kevin Cooper had been on death row for 23 years.

SAN FRANCISCO | 2009

In 2009, Cooper finally got a break. By now his case was back in front of the 9th Circuit Court with 27 judges. While the majority refused to review his case, 11 of them disagreed.

Norman Hile: There is not a single case in U.S. history where 11 appellate judges said that they felt that the person had not gotten a fair hearing.

One judge, William Fletcher, wrote in a scathing 100-page dissent, "the state of California may be about to execute an innocent man …"  and "there is substantial evidence that three white men, rather than cooper were the killers." 

In a lecture, he pointed to contradictions in the only survivor's account.  Josh Ryen first indicated the assailants were three white or Mexican men. By trial, his story was different.

[Video deposition]

D.A. KOTTMEIER:  How many shadows did you see?

JOSH RYEN:  Just one.

D.A. KOTTMEIER:  Just the one?

Judge Fletcher believes Josh's memory was influenced by a deputy who had visited josh "approximately twenty times" during his hospital stay:

JUDGE WILLIAM FLETCHER [NYU LECTURE]: The deputy got Josh to change his story so that he no longer said that three to four white men did it.

The judge also noted josh never identified Kevin Cooper:

JUDGE WILLIAM FLETCHER [NYU LECTURE]: During his stay in the hospital Josh twice saw a picture of Cooper on television, both times he said Cooper was not one of the killers.

It is what Cooper's lawyers have been saying all along.

Norman Hile:  As soon as they identified Kevin Cooper, a black escaped prisoner, in the house down the hill from the Ryens, they stopped looking for those people, and focused entirely on … proving that Kevin Cooper had killed the Ryens.

Judge Fletcher also questions the key piece of evidence in this case: that drop of blood. The state says it proves Kevin Cooper was inside the Ryen home. The criminalist said it was one blood type and later he said it was another.

Norman Hile: When he found out that he'd put the wrong blood type down, and he had not matched it to Kevin, he changed his notes to say it was the same blood type as Kevin's.

The judge says the criminalist "altered his lab notes and claimed that he had misinterpreted his results." But that's not all. Remember the cigarette butts found in the Ryen's station wagon?  Defense attorney Norman Hile believes they came from the home where Cooper had been hiding out.

Norman Hile: When they found the Ryen's station wagon they planted those two cigarette butts.

What's more, Hile says that one of those cigarettes inexplicably grew from one state test to another.

Norman Hile: The previous tested cigarette butt … was four millimeters long … and the one … in 2002 was seven … millimeters long 

Judge Fletcher says deputies "discounted, disregarded and discarded evidence pointing to other killers …" like evidence provided by Diana Roper. She called the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Office after she found bloody coveralls left in her closet:

JUDGE WILLIAM FLETCHER [NYU LECTURE]: The bloody overalls were, to say the least, inconvenient, so the deputies threw them away. … Kevin Cooper, the man now sitting on death row, may well be -- and in my view, probably is -- innocent.

Erin Moriarty: Doesn't that give you pause? Doesn't that make you feel that you have to do whatever you can to make sure that the right person's being executed?

Michael Ramos: The right person is being executed.

District attorney Michael Ramos inherited Cooper's case in 2002.

Michael Ramos: It doesn't give me pause at all, because we're talking about a dissenting judge - of the 9th Circuit Judge's Court of Appeals and which is, uh, federal, you know, with all due respect, a very liberal Circuit. … the majority opinion was not only guilty … overwhelmingly guilty.  

WAS COOPER FRAMED?

By 2010, Kevin Cooper, 52 years old, had been on death row nearly half his life.  His appeals had run out, but the state of California had halted executions; he was in legal limbo. And then a newspaper columnist 3,000 miles away took notice.

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By 2010, Kevin Cooper, 52 years old, had been on death row nearly half his life.  California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Nicholas Kristof writes op-ed columns for the New York Times.

What caught Kristof's attention was Judge William Fletcher's dissent.

Nicholas Kristof: I had never read an opinion like this with a respected circuit court judge arguing that somebody on death row had been framed.

Kristof is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer covering genocide and human rights issues, and there was something about Kevin Cooper's case that struck a chord.

Nicholas Kristof: Prosecutors kinda seized upon him as -- that you know, he's sent by central casting. He looks the part that people had in their minds for a ruthless killer.

Nicholas Kristof: And it is particularly – problematic when a black person is charged with the killings of a white person. Or, in this case, white people … and I think that made it a lot harder for Kevin Cooper to be tried fairly for this crime.

Kristof is haunted by another death penalty case. Cameron Todd Willingham was put to death by lethal injection in 2004. Two years later, evidence surfaced showing he was likely an innocent man.  

Nicholas Kristof: I wish that I had written about the case back then. I think I screwed up … I don't think my writing would've particularly made a difference in that case. But you have to try. And so, I'm trying in Kevin Cooper's case.

Kristof wrote about Cooper's case in 2010, but for the next seven years the case seemed frozen. So Kristof wrote another column in 2017.

Nicholas Kristof: It just disappeared without a ripple. In fact, it was one of my worst read columns in 2017.

Then in May 2018, he tried again. Kristoff and a team from The New York Times did an in-depth investigation into Cooper's case. They took a fresh look at the evidence that has long been questioned: A-41, that tiny bloodstained paint chip and the tan T-shirt that the state says tested positive for Cooper's DNA in 2002.  Kristof's conclusion?

Erin Moriarty: You believe, as you're sitting here right now, that there was evidence planted?

Nicholas Kristof: I believe that there was evidence planted.

But if that's true, how did Cooper's DNA get on the paint chip and on that tan T-shirt?  Defense attorney Norman Hile has a theory: authorities had Cooper's blood. 

Norman Hile: When Kevin Cooper was arrested … they took two vials of blood from him. And that's the blood they could have used.

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Was evidence planted against Cooper? "I think he put either my saliva or blood in there. Or something in there. He had it out for 24 hours … And you only sign it and date it when you open the container," he told "48 Hours"' Erin Moriarty in January 2019. San Bernardino Sheriff's Department

And before the DNA tests were performed, the glassine envelope which contained A-41 was checked out overnight -- signed out to the same criminalist who first matched the blood to Cooper. His reason? He said it was to assure there was enough evidence to test.

Earlier this month, Moriarty spoke with Cooper by phone:

Erin Moriarty: Kevin, what do you believe happened when he took what we've been calling A-41, the single drop of blood that they say connects you to the case?

Kevin Cooper: I think he put either my saliva or blood in there. Or something in there. He had it out for 24 hours … And you only sign it and date it when you open the container.

Erin Moriarty: And the date is on there. You know, I've seen the picture.

Kevin Cooper: Yes … and so that means he opened it … but why did he take it out the vault?

As for the T-shirt, a judge who held a hearing on evidence tampering in 2003 determined that "The shirt … had not been checked out or looked at by anyone prior …DNA testing …"

But that's not accurate. The state showed "48 Hours" the T-shirt a year before the DNA tests were done -- when we first started looking at the case.

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The state showed "48 Hours" the T-shirt a year before the DNA tests were done -- when we first started looking at the case. CBS News

Erin Moriarty [with T-shirt in 2000]: If you were gonna test this shirt here, you would test it for what?

William "Bill" McGuigan | Cooper defense team member: To see if there's any DNA there that can be tested.

Kristof believes there's a suspicious pattern in Cooper's case.

Nicholas Kristof: I think this is unusual in the enormous amount of evidence that suggests that Kevin Cooper was framed, the way consistently a place would be searched, no evidence would be found and then once they knew they were looking at Kevin Cooper, then they would search again. And [snaps his fingers] abracadabra, they would find critical evidence that they needed against him.

Former District Attorney Michael Ramos says claims of evidence tampering have been dismissed by both state and federal courts. 

Michael Ramos: As far as planting evidence, that's absolutely impossible. …There was no evidence tampering at all.

The New York Times also produced a podcast to accompany Kristof's column.

The Daily Podcast: Voice of Kevin Cooper:  I'm ashamed of things I have done, but I am not a murderer and that's real.

Kristof called for new DNA testing in cooper's case and got a huge response from readers, politicians, and even celebrities. Kim Kardashian West sent out this tweet:

Erin Moriarty: What was your reaction when she actually went on social media saying you deserve to get testing?

Kevin Cooper: I was very thankful … that she cared enough and took the time out of her busy life to do that.

Erin Moriarty: I understand even the Pope responded?

Nicholas Kristof: The Pope weighed in. Yeah, how -- how great is that?

Erin Moriarty: You saw the article written by Nicholas Kristof.

Michael Ramos: Right.

Erin Moriarty: Is he wrong?

Michael Ramos: Absolutely wrong … And I wish that he would've taken the time to go over the evidence. The evidence that was presented at the trial. The evidence that was presented to the appellate courts … the federal proceedings … I truly believe that he didn't do his homework before writing that one-sided, very one-sided story.

Nicholas Kristof: So, if you disagree with [laughs] my conclusions, then test the evidence … the best response, if you don't like my argument, is to prove me wrong with the evidence that is sitting in lockers and has been for 35 years.

WHO WORE THE TAN T-SHIRT?

In 2018, more than three decades after Kevin Cooper was sent to death row, with so many people asking questions, "48 Hours" went back to the man who has always searched for the truth, private investigator Paul Ingels.

Even after all these years, he's hung onto his files.

Erin Moriarty: As you sit here today, do you think it's possible that some of that evidence was planted?

Paul Ingels: Absolutely. … planted or contaminated, or maybe both.

And Ingels has always been troubled by evidence that points to multiple killers, not one.

Erin Moriarty [driving with Ingels]: Where are we heading right now?

Paul Ingels: We're gonna head up to the vicinity of where the murders took place, Chino Hills.

Back to the Chino Hills neighborhood where the Ryens once ran their Arabian Horse ranch high up on the hill and he showed "48 Hours" where some of the evidence that Cooper wants tested was found.

Erin Moriarty: Where was the hatchet found?

Paul Ingels: In this vicinity here, it's changed. It used to be this was all weeds and stuff. 

The hatchet was believed to have been dropped by the killer or killers after the murders.

Next, we drove to where the Canyon Corral Bar once stood. That's significant because on the night of the murders, witnesses said they saw three white men in the bar -- one of them wearing a light-colored T-shirt and another wearing bloody coveralls.

Christine Slonaker | Possible witness: I realized at that time that he was just covered in blood, spattered in blood.

Mary Wolfe | Possible witness: He had a light-colored shirt on, so it was, you know it showed, even though the bar was still dark you could still see it.

Erin Moriarty: When you first heard that the Ryens had been murdered, what was your first thought?

Christine Slonaker: "The guys in the bar."

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Further down the road from the Ryen home, authorities found a blood-stained tan T-shirt [seen circled in green]. Some of the blood stains matched Doug Ryen's blood type. None were found to match Kevin Cooper.  Investigators also found an orange towel they believed came from the Ryen home. San Bernardino Sheriff's Department

And not far from that bar is where investigators found an orange towel they believed came from the Ryen home and the tan blood-spattered T-shirt.

Erin Moriarty: So, doesn't that lend some credence that … those three guys could have walked into the bar?

Paul Ingels: Absolutely. …the evidence is right there.

Paul Ingels: The one piece of evidence that I don't think could be tampered with is the sweat on the inside of neck and under the armpits. I mean how would a corrupt deputy plant sweat on a T-shirt? Can't do it.

That's exactly what Diana Roper told "48 Hours" in 2000.

Diana Roper: DNA, the sweat off the T-shirt, that's all I got to say.

Roper, who died in 2003, insisted that her ex-boyfriend Lee Furrow had been wearing a tan T-shirt the night of the murders. State investigators had discounted her story and questioned her credibility.

Diana Roper:  … they thought I was on drugs or crazy.  God is my witness, I was clean.  I was not on drugs.  I know what I saw. 

"48 Hours" wanted to hear from Lee Furrow, so Moriarty asked Paul Ingels to help track him down. By then, Furrow had moved across the country to Pennsylvania and he agreed to talk.

Moriarty asked Furrow about the bloody coveralls that Roper said were his.

Lee Furrow: I never had any coveralls.

As for the tan T-shirt, Furrow had told investigators he was wearing a tank top the night of the murders.

Erin Moriarty: Can I ask you point-blank, did you kill the Ryen family?

Lee Furrow: No, I did not.

Erin Moriarty: Or Christopher Hughes?

Lee Furrow: No, I did not.

Lee Furrow: I had nothing to do with any of this.

But Furrow doesn't deny he's killed before. The body of 17-year-old witness Mary Sue Kitts was never found.

Erin Moriarty: How did you kill her?

Lee Furrow [shakes his head no]: That's -- you know, between me and the courts.

Erin Moriarty: According to testimony in the court, you strangled her. … Is that correct?

Lee Furrow: Yes.

Erin Moriarty: Then how was she disposed of?

Lee Furrow: Dumped in the river.

Erin Moriarty: Is that the only time you killed anyone?

Lee Furrow: Yes.

The coveralls are long gone, but will forensic testing of the tan T-shirt tell a different story? Today, those tests are sophisticated enough to identify DNA from sweat. Can the person who wore this T-shirt 35 years ago be identified? We took our questions to Dr. Dan Krane, a biology professor and DNA expert at Wright State University in Ohio and we provided him with lab reports in Cooper's case.

Erin Moriarty: I mean is it really likely that you would be able to find out the wearer of this T-shirt 35 years after a crime?

Dr. Dan Krane: Well, first, the time isn't particularly important … DNA is a very stable molecule. It would persist for many decades, maybe even centuries … those areas you're talking about sampling, the collar, the arm pits, that's routinely done … Those tests are very straightforward, they can be very reliable.

Erin Moriarty: So, there's a good chance that you will get a DNA profile?

Dr. Dan Krane: I am very comfortable saying I would be surprised if a DNA profile was not generated from those samples.

As for that hatchet discovered near the crime scene, testing may be more difficult.

Dr. Dan Krane: It's been dusted for fingerprints, so the dusting process could have moved DNA from one part to another. Just looking at the photograph it appears as if there's a lot of victim's biological material here … I expect you'll see a DNA profile that corresponds to the victims and you may not even be able to get a hint that there was somebody else's DNA there.

The defense also wants that hatchet sheath and orange towel tested, but there are challenges with testing this old evidence.

Dr. Dan Krane: Now the problem … may be a mixture of many people's DNA.

Erin Moriarty: And why is that a problem?

Dr. Dan Krane: Well, mixtures are very difficult to interpret.

And this is part of the reason the state is opposing new testing.

Erin Moriarty: Dr. Krane, what about the state's argument that this shirt has been handled by so many people, including jurors, at the original trial. That there's simply too much of a risk of contamination to trust the results?

Dr. Dan Krane: Well I think it's a reasonable point. … but … if you found not only that it wasn't Kevin Cooper's DNA on the shirt but a specific other alternative suspect's DNA … then I think the burden shifts over to the prosecution to explain how that … DNA might have been transferred to the shirt while it was in their care.

To show us how easy it is transfer DNA, Krane did a simple demonstration using a packet of sugar.

Dr. Dan Krane: So, if we just rip it open and I can put some of that sugar in my hand … we'll spread it around a bit. [Krane then shakes the sugar from his hand onto a table]. There's still sugar on my hand.

Dr. Dan Krane: Let's shake hands. … If you look carefully, you'll see there's sugar on your hand. There's some on mine … Not only is there plenty of sugar grains there, there's also plenty of my DNA there now, too. … it's really easy to transfer DNA from one thing to another, from one person to another.

Kevin Cooper's defense suspects Lee Furrow was part of the crew that killed the Ryen family and Christopher Hughes, but to prove it, they need to get a sample of his DNA.

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH

More than 35 years since the brutal murders in Chino Hills, California, there is still no peace for Josh Ryen and the family of Christopher Hughes. They believe Kevin Cooper is responsible. In a letter to California Governor Jerry Brown last April, Josh wrote:

"Kevin Cooper is in my mind every day. He is a nightmare which plays over and over in my head. I can never get away from him."

But Cooper -- facing death -- still insists he's innocent.

Kevin Cooper [on the phone with Moriarty]: I cannot take responsibility for murders I did not commit. 

And he's asked Governor Brown to take the extraordinary step to order new DNA tests.

Norman Hile | Cooper's attorney: I don't see that as a bad gamble, from our perspective. What have we got to lose?

But the state is fighting it. Former D.A. Michael Ramos believes the victim's families have suffered enough.

Michael Ramos: The tests have been done. Any further tests … is not going to … take away the evidence that we have that Kevin Cooper committed these murders. … You talk about cruel and unusual punishment, that's what you're doing to the family if you allow this murderer, manipulator, to work the system to get these further 'tests' that aren't going to disprove anything.

Still, Cooper's attorneys are so confident that new tests will clear Cooper, they're offering to pay for them.  They believe that DNA from sweat on the T-shirt will match Lee Furrow, that paroled killer.  Defense investigator Tom Parker, a retired FBI agent, says he's now found new witnesses -- one who says Furrow admitted he was involved in the murders.

Tom Parker: These people had no reason to make any of this up. They gained nothing from it … They are willing to testify. But we're not gonna divulge who they are right now.

Erin Moriarty: What is Lee Furrow's connection with the Ryens? What would be his motive?

Norman Hile: Well, that's something that we have actually developed a lot more  information and possibilities.

Defense attorney Norman Hile believes the connection between the Ryens and Furrow may have been Clarence Ray Allen, who ordered Furrow to kill once before. Allen owned show horses.

Norman Hile: So, everybody's been wondering, well, what was the motive here? And we have four different connections between the Ryen murder and a horse deal gone bad that related to the Ryens. And we think that is the reason why the murders took place.

But Furrow has always said he had an alibi; he was at a concert that night.

Michael Ramos: He was 30-plus miles away from the crime scene when the murders occurred.

"48 Hours" tried to talk to Furrow again earlier this month, but he wouldn't talk to Moriarty.

To try to prove Furrow is involved, the defense team wants a sample of his DNA. Furrow was willing to give one.

Erin Moriarty: Were you surprised he was just willing to hand over his DNA?

Tom Parker: I was astonished that he was willing to do that. And I asked him why and he said he had nothing to hide.

furrow-swab.jpg
To try to prove Lee Furrow is involved, the defense team wanted a sample of his DNA. Furrow was willing to give his saliva, but not his blood.

Furrow is seen with a relative at a meeting that was secretly recorded by Investigator Parker:

TOM PARKER [TO FURROW]: Would you mind opening your mouth? I'll do this side here.

Lee Furrow was willing to give his saliva, but not his blood.

LEE FURROW: I'm not doing blood work and end up on evidence like whatever they did to Kevin Cooper.

Furrow still disputes he ever owned or wore a tan T-shirt like the one his ex-girlfriend Diana Roper said he was wearing the night of the murders:

TOM PARKER: You never had a tan t-shirt like that?

LEE FURROW No. Never.

TOM PARKER: That's not what you had on?

LEE FURROW: No.

TOM PARKER: OK, well DNA's gonna tell us … even 35 years later, those skin cells are still gonna be there.

LEE FURROW: Good

Norman Hile: We have the DNA of the person we think killed the Ryens. That's Lee Furrow.

It was up to California's Governor Jerry Brown to decide whether any of the evidence in Cooper's case would be retested. And in December, just 14 days before Brown left office, Cooper got a surprise.

California governor orders new DNA test in notorious murder case

KCBS: Governor Brown has ordered new DNA testing for death row inmate Kevin Cooper…  

The news made headlines everywhere, including social media:

Erin Moriarty: How did you hear about it?

Kevin Cooper: I found out about it on Christmas morning when I was watching the news.

The governor's order is limited in scope. DNA tests will be allowed for only four items:  the hatchet, the sheath, the Tan t-shirt and the orange towel. A retired judge was appointed to make sure the tests are done properly.

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On Dec. 24, 2018, California Gov. Jerry Brown approved new DNA testing on four pieces of evidence: the sheath, the hatchet, the tan T-shirt and an orange towel found near the Ryen home that matched ones from inside. San Bernardino Sheriff's Department

Kevin Cooper: I'm just trying to stay positive and hopeful, but I'm also skeptical.

Erin Moriarty: Are these DNA tests really a matter of life or death?

Norman Hile: They are for Mr. Cooper, for sure.

Erin Moriarty: Does he know what he's up against?

Norman Hile: He continues to believe … he has hope … that someday he will ultimately be exonerated.

Nicholas Kristof: Let's use the technologies we have to figure out who wore the tan T-shirt. … maybe they won't provide answers, but it's also possible they will solve the case. And how can we leave that stone unturned?

Attorneys for both sides are working out the details for Kevin Cooper's new DNA tests.

The testing is expected to take place in the next few months.

EDITORS NOTE: On Feb. 22,2019, California Gov. Gavn Newsom ordered DNA testing on evidence that Kevin Cooper says would prove his innocence: testing of hair, blood, fingernail scrapings from the victims and a green button. 

  • Erin Moriarty

    Correspondent, "48 Hours"