Gavin Newsom Orders New DNA Test In Controversial Death Row Case

The case of death row inmate Kevin Cooper may reflect poorly on Sen. Kamala Harris as she vies for the 2020 nomination.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order Friday calling for new DNA testing in the case of Kevin Cooper, a death row inmate whose conviction could be a key debate point in the 2020 presidential election.

Newsom’s actions come in response to a clemency application from Cooper, whose defense says the long-requested tests could prove his innocence in the 1983 killing of four people in Chino Hills, California.

Cooper's case has been a lightning rod issue for decades.
Cooper's case has been a lightning rod issue for decades.
Associated Press

“I take no position regarding Mr. Cooper’s guilt or innocence at this time,” Newsom wrote in his order. “Especially in cases where the government seeks to impose the ultimate punishment of death, I need to be satisfied that all relevant evidence is carefully and fairly examined.”

For years, Cooper’s defense team has raised credible evidence that sheriff’s deputies framed him for the crime. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who has reported extensively on Cooper’s case, has also concluded that that is the most likely explanation. He praised Newsom’s announcement as an “excellent” development.

Newsom’s call for a DNA test in Cooper’s case follows one issued by outgoing California Gov. Jerry Brown late last year. Newsom’s order calls for testing on additional pieces of evidence.

This development may prove to be a big problem for 2020 candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who’s faced sharp criticism for refusing to allow advanced DNA testing of the evidence in Cooper’s case during her tenure as the state’s attorney general ― something she later told the Times she now feels “awful” about.

Last May, following one of Kristof’s reports about the case, Harris issued a statement saying she hopes the governor will issue an order for that DNA testing. She also pointed to her “fierce opposition to the death penalty.”

Harris, who has gained the endorsement of Newsom despite the Cooper issue, will likely be forced to answer for her decision on the DNA testing under the pressure of voters and opponents in the Democratic primary, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)