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Kevin Cooper v. Michael A. Ramos

December 27, 2012

KEVIN COOPER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
MICHAEL A. RAMOS, DISTRICT ATTORNEY FOR THE COUNTY OF SAN BERNARDINO; STEVEN MYERS, SENIOR CRIMINALIST WITH THE CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE DNA LABORATORY; DANIEL GREGONIS, CRIMINALIST AT THE SBCSD; FRED ECKLEY; KEN SCHRECKENGOST, SBCSD DEPUTY; WILLIAM BAIRD, SBCSD DEPUTY; IRVIN SHARP, SBCSD DEPUTY; HECTOR OCAMPO, SBCSD DETECTIVE; GALE DUFFY, SBCSD DEPUTY; DAVID STOCKWELL, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California Stephen V. Wilson, District Judge, Presiding D.C. No. 2:11-cv-03942-SVW-OP

The opinion of the court was delivered by: McKEOWN, Circuit Judge:

FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Argued and Submitted August 20, 2012-Seattle, Washington

Before: M. Margaret McKeown, Ronald M. Gould, and Richard C. Tallman, Circuit Judges.

Opinion by Judge McKeown

SUMMARY*fn1

Civil Rights

The panel affirmed the district court's dismissal of a complaint brought by Kevin Cooper, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1985, challenging a state court's denial of his request to obtain additional DNA testing pursuant to a state statute.

Cooper alleged that he was the target of a long-running conspiracy, involving members of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department and others, to manipulate evidence and prevent him from proving that he was framed. The district court dismissed the complaint without prejudice, to the extent that Cooper was able to plead viable claims that were not barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.

The panel first determined that the district court intended its order to be final and appealable and therefore the panel had jurisdiction to consider the ruling. The panel then held that the district court properly dismissed the complaint under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine because the federal courts lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Cooper's first claim, which sought federal relief from the state court's determination in the DNA proceeding, and over his second and third claims, which were inextricably intertwined with the first. The panel further held that the district did not err in implicitly denying Cooper's request to amend the complaint.

OPINION

Kevin Cooper was convicted of four counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 1985. Since then his case has traveled up, down and around the federal and state judiciaries. Most recently, Cooper filed suit in federal district court in California challenging a state court's denial of his request to obtain additional DNA testing pursuant to a state statute. In the complaint, Cooper alleges that he is the target of a long-running conspiracy, involving members of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department and others, to manipulate evidence and prevent him from proving that he was framed. The district court dismissed without prejudice on the basis that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine because Cooper's federal suit constituted a de facto appeal of the state court judgment. We agree that his complaint was properly dismissed. Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, the federal courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over his first claim, which sought federal relief from the state court's determination in the DNA proceeding, and over his second and third claims, which are inextricably intertwined with the first. We further hold that the district did not err in implicitly denying Cooper's request to amend the complaint.

BACKGROUND

Cooper has vigorously pursued his post-conviction options. He has appeared before multiple three-judge panels and an en banc panel of this court, as well as various federal district and state courts. While his efforts have questioned the credibility of the police work and the forensic evidence, they have failed to result in a reversal of his conviction. The brutal facts and prolonged procedural history are detailed in our previous opinion and are not repeated here. See Cooper v. Brown, 510 F.3d 870 (9th Cir. 2007).

In 2010, several years after denial of his federal habeas petition, Cooper filed a motion in San Diego Superior Court under California Penal Code § 1405. Section 1405, entitled Motion for DNA Testing, provides convicted felons a right to file a motion for post-conviction DNA testing, and sets out eight detailed fact-based criteria for granting the motion. Cal. Penal Code § 1405. Cooper sought further post-conviction DNA testing of three pieces of evidence, all of which had been extensively tested and unsuccessfully challenged in previous proceedings.

In rejecting Cooper's request for testing, the Superior Court reviewed in detail the tests that had been conducted on each piece of evidence, considered the requirements for further testing under § 1405, and rejected Cooper's claims that the prosecution and other public officials tampered with the evidence of the crime. The court labeled as "speculation" Cooper's "unspecified tampering theory." The court also found that Cooper had failed to show that use of a different testing method, the MiniFiler kit, "would provide results that are reasonably more discriminatory and probative of the identity of the perpetrator or accomplice or have a reasonable probability of contradicting prior test results" as required by § 1405. Ultimately the court concluded that Cooper "has not demonstrated there is a reasonable probability he would have had a more favorable outcome if the requested DNA results had been available."

Rather than filing a petition for review with the California Supreme Court, Cooper filed a complaint in federal court against a host of public officials- Michael A. Ramos, Daniel Gregonis, Fred Eckley, William Baird, Hector O'Campo, Gail Duffy, David Stockwell, and Steven Myers-alleging violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Cooper alleged that he is the target of a long-running conspiracy to manipulate evidence and prevent him from proving that he was framed. He advanced three claims: (1) denial of procedural due process in the trial court based on the § 1405 proceedings (against San Bernardino District Attorney Michael Ramos and Steven Myers, senior criminalist); (2) civil conspiracy to deny procedural due process based on his § 1405 request (against Ramos and Myers); and (3) civil conspiracy to deny substantive due process based on tampering with and falsifying evidence (against all defendants). Characterizing Cooper's suit as a de facto appeal of the state court judgment, the district court dismissed the complaint without prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.

ANALYSIS

I. AVAILABILITY OF APPELLATE REVIEW

The threshold issue on appeal is whether we have jurisdiction to consider the district court's ruling. This question arises because the district court dismissed the complaint "without prejudice, to the extent that Plaintiff is able to plead viable claims that are not barred by Rooker-Feldman," but the court neither granted nor denied Cooper's request for leave to amend. See WMX Tech., Inc. v. Miller, 104 F.3d 1133, 1136 (9th Cir. 1997) (en banc) (noting the ...


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