Essay human rights Incarceration Kevin Cooper Original

[rewind] Kevin Cooper: My Experience With the Death Penalty

On February 9, 2004, Kevin Cooper came within 3 hours and 45 minutes of being murdered by the state of California. In this essay, Cooper recounts his experience with the death penalty.
“Free Me” painting by Kevin Cooper

By Kevin Cooper / Original to ScheerPost

It’s time, or way past time, to once and for all rid ourselves of capital punishment, to end the death penalty not just in California, but in every state in this country, and across the world. As a survivor of this manmade madness, and as a descendant of African Americans who have been legally murdered by the powers that be for any reason, and no reason at all, I must stand up and speak out and say: “Abolish the Death Penalty!’

[Editor’s Note: The following article was written by Kevin Cooper for Black History Month in 2018 and published with permission from the author. We find it appropriate to republish for World Day Against the Death Penalty 2023.]

DEATH ROW, SAN QUENTIN PRISON—From December 17, 2003 to February 9, 2004, the prison guards and administration at this modern day plantation changed me,  rearranged me, oppressed me, regressed me, repressed me, depressed me and  undressed me in order to murder me. 

They had me bend over so that they could illuminate my bowels with their  flashlight in order to look for some type of contraband that they knew that I did not  have. They watched me, clocked me, kept tabs on me, wrote notes about me and what I  did and did not do. They questioned me, upset me, saddened me, distressed me, laughed  at me, talked about me, and searched my arms for good veins into which to insert their razor sharp needles. 

They heckled me, pointed at me, stared at me, hated me, isolated me, and lied to  me by telling me everything was going to be alright because I would not feel any pain. They threatened to beat me up and beat me down if I gave them any trouble.

They did these things and others to humiliate me, dehumanize me, scare me, and  psychologically torture me in order to show me that they were the boss, they were god,  my master, that they were in control of not only the situation at hand, but my body and  life as well. 

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“They” were the volunteer prison guard executioners who were assigned to torture then murder me at 12:01AM on February 10, 2004, the execution date. They traumatized me, terrorized me, belittled me, and offered me as a last meal tombstone pizza. They examined me, as they had me standing naked in a ice cold room on a ice cold floor where they inspected every inch of my black body in the 21st century the exact same way that my ancestors of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries had their black bodies inspected while they stood naked on the auction block. 

All of this was happening to me during Black History Month in 2004. But this  should not be a surprise to anyone because in truth, lynching and executions, illegal and  legal, are a very real part of the history of Black people in America. 

The physical torture I was going to experience if I had of been strapped to that  death gurney is the main reason why there have not been any executions allowed in this  state since 2006. But to better understand the type of torture that happens to  condemned inmates who are being put to death by lethal injection, back then as well as  now, I will use the words of United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, as  she wrote in a June 29, 2015 dissent in the case of Glossip v. Gross: “Lethal injection is  the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake, or being burned alive.”   

Anyone who reads this can’t actually believe that the people in this state can  guarantee or even care about a painless or humane execution, which is an oxymoron,  because there is no such thing as a humane execution.  If you actually think that the  people who want executions resumed in this state will not lie about this most important  issue, including the type of drugs and the pain that they will cause to the people whose bodies they are injected into, then I must use the words of the late Malcolm X  to try to get you to see the truth. Malcolm X once stated concerning the oppressors who run this  country and have you believing everything they say: “Oh, I say, and I say it again, ya  been had! Ya been took! Ya been hoodwinked! Bamboozled! Led astray! Run amok!”   In my words, ya been bullshitted!  

I am known in this prison/plantation as C-65304, and I write this “Black History Month Truth” about what happened to me, an innocent man, so that you will see how it is when it comes to who lives and who dies in this country’s system of “justice.” On Monday, February 9th, 2004 shortly after 6:15 PM, the Rev. Jessie Jackson said a prayer for me and my visitors inside the visiting room here at San Quentin Prison. Then he and my personal pastor and friends were told to leave, which they did. I was  then escorted to the rear of the visiting area and taken to a hallway that contained  holding cells. I was placed in the holding cell where I had the handcuffs removed and was told to get undressed,which I did. I was strip-searched and given a brand new  set of prison-issue clothing and told to put it on.  

I was handcuffed after I got dressed and was removed from that cell where I was handed over to another squad of officers. There were about 12 members of the death squad who volunteered to be the execution team.  I had known for quite a long time that there was a Black man who was the spokesman to the media for this institution whenever it came to executions and other events. However, I must admit that I was a bit shocked to see two Black men volunteering to murder me.  Maybe it was because of all the history books that I have read about my ancestors and our fight for freedom within this country. In this reading and learning I found that the vast majority of murders, including lynching and execution of Blacks in America, have happened at the hands of whites. 

While I had also learned in my reading that there were certain Africans who sold other Africans to slave catchers in Africa, and those slaves were sent throughout the world, including to America, I learned that certain slaves on certain plantations whipped their fellow slaves, injured their fellow slaves, and if told to, murdered their fellow slaves whenever the white man told them to do so. Some free Black people owned other blacks as slaves too. (There are many different reasons for this historical fact, including protecting their family members.)

Even with all this knowledge, I still wasn’t prepared to see two Black men as executioners when this state of California went about its task of trying to murder me. Most, not all, but most of the Black prison guards who worked on death row told me and other Black males who are on death row that they were against the death penalty. They expressed that our history in this country, and their knowledge of it, made them against this type of punishment. (I guess this is why certain white district attorneys try so very hard to keep certain Black people off of death penalty juries.) 

These two big burly Black men who were members of the execution squad had no rank. They were just plain old prison guards who were very, very large in size. In  appearance, they looked like professional football players who made their living tackling  people. For the purpose of being on the execution squad, they were the muscle. 

In my mind I was screaming at them both, asking, “What the fuck are you doing helping them to murder me? Don’t you know our history? Don’t you know what you’re doing?” I was asking them in my mind how could they be part of any execution team, especially the one that was about to murder me.  I said all of that and more in my mind, heart, and spirit, but not a word came out of my mouth. 

I was surrounded by about six officers and escorted to the death chamber waiting  room. When I was in the visiting room, the prison officials told me that the 9th Circuit Court  of Appeals had granted me a stay of execution, but until they heard from the United States  Supreme Court about whether or not my stay would remain in place, this prison was  going to proceed as if there was no stay. 

When I arrived outside the death chamber waiting room door, it was opened and I  was told to go inside, which I did. I was then told to place my back against the wall while  being surrounded by a new squad of officers. These were the officers of the execution  squad. There was about eight of them. The leader of the squad got real close to me and asked me, “is there going to be any trouble when we take the handcuffs off of you?” I looked  him in his eyes and told him “no” and he removed the handcuffs. 

I was again told to take off all my clothes, which I did, and I was strip-searched  again.  This time they used a flashlight to light up both my mouth and butt as they  searched me. This room that I was now in was very, very cold. The temperature had to be in the lower 50s. I stood barefoot on that cold floor surrounded by those officers while my body was completely searched. Then I was given yet another new set of clothing, the clothes in which I was to be executed. 

I was then placed in another cell, half the size of a regular cell. It had only a toilet, a  mattress and pillow in it. I stood there in the cold waiting for my pastor to come pray with me, and for me, all the while not knowing what the United States Supreme Court was going to do. 

About a half hour later, my pastor arrived, and she was placed in a cell next to mine. It  was to my right-hand side, but on an angle, and it’s hard to see her through the cell bars, but I managed. I was asked once again if I wanted a last meal. I said no.I was asked if I wanted water. I said no. The warden came in and asked if I had a final statement. I  said no. My arms were once again checked so they could make sure that they could find  my veins, and officers were passing by with alcohol pads and swabs and other assorted  items for their execution and my murder. 

My pastor did a great job in keeping me focused. Somewhere in the middle of one of her scriptures, the phone rang. It was my attorney, Jeannie Sternberg, calling to let me  know she was with me in spirit, and as soon as she heard something from the US Supreme Court, she would call and let me know.

I entered the death chamber waiting room around 6:35 PM. About 8:15  PM, the phone rang again, and it was once again my attorney. She told me that she heard from the court, and that the justices refused to hear the state’s petition appealing my stay. They upheld my stay! 

Even before I told my pastor the news, I told those officers that I meant them no  disrespect in what I was about to say to them, but they weren’t going to do their job that night. I then told my pastor, and she and I prayed. I came within three hours and 45 minutes of being murdered by the state of California. 

I never again saw those two Black execution guards. After news of the stay. Everyone went his own separate way. I went back to a cell on death row, and they went wherever people like them go. While many of us who are Black would like to think and believe that all the oppression, pain, death, and inhumanity we endure comes from just white people, or white men, I want to remind everyone that there are “the Black ones, too” who do to us what we are standing up against, fighting and dying for, to stop. 

It took me a while to recover from the man-made ritual of death thatI had to experience. I will never be the same again. I am only getting stronger and more  determined to do my part in shutting down the government’s pride and joy—its capital  punishment system. 

The torture and inhumanity that accompanies this crime are not only inflicted against  our Black bodies but against everyone’s humanity too.  Yet this horrible and inhumane  crime against all of humanity may once again be used in this great state of California with  the passage of Proposition 66 in 2016. If this does indeed happen, then I may have to go  through this prison administration’s sick ass ritual of death once again, and who knows? It  may be during Black History Month in 2019. 

To one degree or another we black people have always been disrespected during  Black History month, as well as each and every other month of the year.  My plight at the  hands of the state at that time should not be a surprise to anyone. I have written this to communicate the horror of the death penalty for everyone on death row, the legitimacy of  the charges against them notwithstanding. 

In my case, there is a particular resonance with black history, as it is certainly not the  first time—and sadly will not be the last—that an innocent black man was convicted of a  crime he did not commit.  The fact is, I am innocent of the murders of four people for which  I was convicted and in which the sole survivor, a child, said several times it was “three  white men” who killed his mother, father, sister and friend.   

Three white men were seen by witnesses driving the family’s white station wagon away from their home and were seen soon afterwards in a local bar, splattered with blood.   One of the white suspects, a convicted killer, left his bloody coveralls at his girlfriend’s  house the night of the killings, and the sheriff’s department threw them away without  testing them six months later.  

When the surviving boy saw my picture on television, he announced in front of a  sheriff’s deputy and his grandmother: “He is not the guy who did it.”  Three white guys did  it and one black guy—me—was tried and convicted.  

When my execution was halted in 2004 so my attorneys could present new evidence  that would prove my innocence, the prosecution fought it and the judge in my habeas  hearing denied virtually every piece of evidence that was exculpatory.  A test to prove that  my blood was planted on a shirt was denied.  There is so much more misconduct, much if it  cited by jurors who convicted me and now say if they had known the truth, they would not  have found me guilty.   

You have to ask yourself: Why deny me—and the victims and their survivors— the  simple DNA tests that could prove my innocence and also identify the real killers? The prosecution wants my death to stifle the truth of my innocence. But why doesn’t Gov. Jerry  Brown grant me the DNA tests needed to find the killers?  The families deserve this as much as I do!  

Please think of me, and others like me during this Black History Month, and do me a  favor: If you hear that I was executed by the state of California, please remember these words of 9th Circuit Appeals Court Judge William Fletcher, one of 11 appellate judges who  want me to have a chance to prove my innocence: 

“He’s on death row,” Fletcher said, “because the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department  framed him.”  

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Kevin Cooper

In 1985, Kevin Cooper was convicted of a 1983 quadruple murder and sentenced to death in a trial in which evidence that might have exonerated him was withheld or destroyed from the defense. Cooper has become active in writing from prison to assert his innocence, protest racism in the American criminal justice system, and oppose the death penalty. His case was scrutinized by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on Jan. 23, 2021May 17, 2018 and June 17, 2017, and by 48 Hours, with Erin Moriarty, most recently on March 21, 2020 in “The Troubling Case Against Keven Cooper.” 

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