Execution debate continues
Should people die for committing serious, sometimes gruesome crimes?
As local residents pondered the fate of condemned killer Kevin Cooper Monday, his life lay in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Cooper, convicted in the 1983 hacking deaths of four people, was scheduled to be executed just after midnight Monday at San Quentin Prison after 19 years on death row.
However, a federal appeals court Monday barred convicted killer Cooper’s pending execution, saying evidence in his case should get a fresh look after 18 years of appeals.
The decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came less than eight hours before Cooper was to be executed by lethal injection for hacking four people to death in 1983.
The Supreme Court later denied a request by the state of California to reverse the appeals court’s decision.
It would have been California’s first execution in two years.
Although most people interviewed on Mill Street in Grass Valley Monday afternoon, like 76-year-old John Bevard, believe Cooper to be guilty of the murders, not all of them said he should pay for it with his life.
“I don’t think society should kill anybody,” said Bevard, a Grass Valley resident.
Dan McCollum, 50, of North San Juan, said while he does not oppose the death penalty, he believes Cooper should not be executed now.
“It sounds like there is a pretty good case for giving him review before they snuff him out,” he said. “I’m OK with (executions) – they are not overly barbaric. The problem is knowing for sure they are guilty.”
Cooper’s attorneys have asked for several pieces of evidence that were not previously tested for DNA to be checked out. Cooper has always maintained his innocence.
“If there is any doubt, you have got to hold off,” McCollum said.
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.
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.
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.
But the gruesome crimes are not enough for some people to condemn Cooper.
“It is barbaric,” said Helen McDonough, 85, of Grass Valley. “There are so many times when mistakes are made and innocent people are killed. He shouldn’t be executed.”
Most of the people interviewed said that Cooper should die for his crimes.
“In certain cases it is called for,” said Trace Fike, 39, of Nevada City. “Some crimes are heinous enough to deserve death.”
Grass Valley resident Dee Giles, 66, also said executions are acceptable when they are warranted.
“If you cannot function in society and you kill people, you should be eliminated from society,” Giles said. “If he is guilty and he went through the whole process, I have no qualms with the law being carried out. It is the law, after all.”
Others said Cooper should be put to death because he was legally found guilty and that executions are an adequate deterrent to other criminals.
Nevada City resident Stephen Protzman, 52, had a different suggestion altogether. Citing the 1990 movie “Flatliners,” he said convicted murderers should be taken to a legally dead stage and then brought back.
“(Executions) should be replaced by medically supervised near-death experiences,” he said. “Let us make it into a correctional activity instead of an act of vengeance.”
Protzman added there is enough reasonable doubt to warrant not executing Cooper.
Two local radio station employees drove to San Quentin Prison to be media representatives at the execution.
Mike Thornton and Carolyn Crane, of radio station KVMR, were to prepare a documentary on capital punishment and report on Cooper’s execution in today’s morning news report on the station.
“We’re going to tell the story of what is being done in the people of California’s name,” Thornton said “We’re really conflicted as a society about the death penalty. Anything that can lead to meaningful discussion of it is a good thing.”
By a 9-2 vote, the 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that the execution be stayed.
“No person should be executed if there is doubt about his or her guilt, and an easily available test will determine guilt or innocence,” wrote seven of the judges. They said a San Diego federal judge should reopen the case and order new tests on blond hair and a bloody shirt – tests which Cooper says will exonerate him.
“The public cannot afford a mistake. Neither can Cooper,” added Judges Barry Silverman and Johnnie Rawlinson in a separate opinion. They said the execution should be stayed for as long as it takes to test the shirt for evidence of a preservative that would indicate Cooper’s blood was planted.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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