Calif. Grants Stay in Cooper Execution
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By DAVID KRAVETS, Associated Press Writer
SAN FRANCISCO - A condemned murderer whose bid for clemency was denied by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (news - web sites) won a stay of execution on Monday, hours before he was to be executed.
Slideshow: Calif. Death Penalty Case
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (news - web sites) granted a request for an 11-judge panel to rehear the case of Kevin Cooper, convicted in 1983 of hacking four people to death. His execution would have been the first in California in two years and is the first death penalty case Schwarzenegger had to deal with.
It was not clear when the panel would hear the latest challenge, which Cooper's attorneys filed Sunday.
Cooper was scheduled to be executed at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday at San Quentin Prison after spending 19 years on death row.
He won support from actors who oppose the death penalty including Denzel Washington, Sean Penn and Mike Farrell, and from the Rev. Jesse Jackson (news - web sites) and Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. In addition, three of the jurors who convicted Cooper called for a stay of execution so hair and blood evidence can be tested.
Cooper, 46, was sentenced to death for the murders of Douglas and Peggy Ryen, both 41, their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, and Christopher Hughes, her 11-year-old friend.
On Sunday, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit rejected Cooper's legal claims by 2-1. Out of deference to the dissenting judge, the majority of the judges agreed to allow an 11-judge panel to review the case.
Also Sunday, Cooper's attorneys filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court (news - web sites) seeking to block the execution.
Cooper claims DNA evidence found at the scene, which matches his, was planted by authorities. He has repeatedly asked for renewed tests, but the courts have balked, saying there is no evidence of tampering and there is overwhelming evidence of Cooper's guilt.
Cooper maintains a trio of murderers committed the savage attacks, according to his attorney, David Alexander.
Cooper's attorneys also insisted they have new evidence in the case, producing a woman who said that on the night of the 1983 murders, she saw two men covered in blood at a bar near the scene of the killings.
About 100 death penalty opponents gathered Sunday near Schwarzenegger's home in Southern California, and hundreds are planning a candlelight vigil outside the prison gates.
"This could be one of our biggest protests ever," said Lance Lindsay, executive director of Death Penalty Focus, a group that lobbies against the death penalty.
On Saturday, three of Cooper's jurors called for a stay of execution. They said blond hair found in the hands of one of the victims should be tested. The hair had not undergone DNA testing before the 1985 trial. Prosecutors believe the hair was that of the victim, sheared off as she was being hacked to death.
The mother of one of Cooper's victims, Mary Ann Hughes, dismissed the jurors' request.
"This is nothing new," she said. "It's stuff that has been looked at millions of times. This is just an example of the defense playing on the jurors emotions at the last minute."
The San Bernardino County victims were stabbed and hacked repeatedly with a hatchet and buck knife. The Ryens' 8-year-old son, Joshua, had his throat slit, but survived.
Joshua Ryen, now a construction worker, was awakened the night of the murder by screaming and was left unconscious with a slashed throat, two hatchet wounds and two stab wounds, his lawyer, Milt Silverman, told the Los Angeles Times for a story in Monday editions.
"Josh wakes up from the attack in the deathly still bedroom, where the stench of blood was nauseating," Silverman told the newspaper. "He put all four fingers in his neck to stop his bleeding while he was staring closely at his mother — dead, and covered in blood. Josh laid there 11 hours."
Ryen hired Silverman after he and his grandmother expressed doubts that Cooper acted alone, but Silverman said his investigation left the survivor convinced that Cooper was the lone killer.
When the murders were committed, Cooper was on the run after escaping from prison, where he had been serving a four-year sentence for burglary. Authorities speculated his motive was to steal the family's station wagon.
The last execution in California was that of Stephen Anderson in 2002, when Schwarzenegger's predecessor, Gray Davis (news - web sites), refused to grant clemency.
The last California governor to grant clemency to a condemned murderer was Ronald Reagan (news - web sites), who in 1967 spared the life of a severely brain-damaged killer.
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