Voices from the inside - Interview with Kevin Cooper

Painting by Kevin Cooper
By: Carole Seligman and Kevin Cooper

Kevin Cooper has been on death row at San Quentin for over 25 years. This is an abridged version of an interview that was conducted on July 21 by Carole Seligman, a human rights activist. Prison Radio recorded the interview, and the full version is available at SaveKevinCooper.org

You recently took part by telephone in a tour called “Lynching Then and Now,” which was sponsored by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. The tour was about the roots of the current American death penalty system in slavery in this country. Could you tell us about that idea of linking the death penalty as it is practiced today in the United States with the legacy of slavery?

The same thing that was done to slaves back in the 1700s and 1800s is still being done to us, though we’re told “times have changed.”

How is it being done? Like this: Death, in and of itself, is freedom. It was freedom for slaves then. It is freedom for slaves now. In order to keep slavery alive and well, and to keep people participating in chattel slavery, they torture people. They outright torture them physically.

They would gather all the slaves around and they would torture one and they would say, “This is what happens to you if you don’t do this, or if you do do this. You won’t just get death, you’ll get tortured.” It was the torture that precedes death that kept all the slaves working their asses off for their lives. And now you’ve got today. 

Death, in the circumstances in which I’m forced to live, is freedom. It is my way out. It is the way where I cannot be shackled or handcuffed or anything that these people do to me. Death frees me from this. These people know it, so they want to torture us like they tortured Stanley Tookie Williams inside those death chambers, in order that we will not be free, as we want to be. That is just one part, but a very important part, of how they used torture and the death penalty to keep people enslaved.

Today, they say the death penalty is a deterrent. But it’s not a deterrent. The only thing it may deter people from, if anything, is getting caught. Because if people get caught, they know they’re going to get tortured. They’re not just going to get dead. They’re going to get tortured first. 

The death penalty in my mind is used in order to keep people in their “proper” place in society—to keep them in line. And if you don’t do what certain people say, they’ll get rid of you.

Understand the mentality of this country. Everything they do, they kill. They kill the fish in the ocean. They kill the birds in the sky. They kill the plants in the ground.  This is a “kill” mentality society that we live in. And the poorer that you are, and the darker your skin, the more these people will use these things like the death penalty and the prisons to justify doing to you whatever they do. 

Slavery is alive today just as it was alive throughout the history of this country, in its various forms.

I want to ask you about the dissent written by Judge Fletcher of the Appeals Court. You have said that this dissent was unprecedented. Could you outline the main points of the dissent and tell us why the U.S. Supreme Court ignored it?

I can’t answer why the Supreme Court ignored it. They’re in their own world. But I do know that Judge Fletcher’s dissent—which was agreed with by 11 federal circuit judges—was unprecedented because it has never been done before.

In the history of death penalty cases, there have never been 11 federal circuit judges who came out on the side of a death row inmate. There has never been five federal circuit judges who said that a death row inmate was innocent or said that a state was maybe about to execute an innocent man. So that’s one reason why it’s unprecedented.

It’s also unprecedented in its length. It is 103-plus pages. And within those 103-plus pages, Judge Fletcher not only goes step by step through the history of this case and my wrongful conviction, but he also proves how San Bernardino County has violated my constitutional rights by withholding material exculpatory evidence up to eight times, depending how you count them. He exposed how the state has framed me, step by step—how they went about ignoring evidence that pointed to other people.

Throughout the history of this country, some cases have come out, maybe one at a time, where judges have lied and said a person is guilty, but judges don’t lie and say a person’s innocent! So this, together, is all unprecedented.

Some people have put forward sentences of life without the possibility of parole as an alternative for death row prisoners. What do you think about that idea?

Some people call it permanent imprisonment. But whatever you call it, it’s a death sentence. When they execute you, you’re dead without parole. And when you get life without the possibility of parole, you’re dead without parole. It’s all the same thing.

For the most part, in my opinion, these people who are advocating this idea of life without the possibility of parole, have no idea what it’s like to live in these places. This is no life! Prison correction officers looking up your butt three or four times a day. Eating food that’s not fit for animals. Being told what you can do and can’t do all the time. Being led around like an animal. This is no life. Being paid slave wages for a hard day’s work. Being told how to kiss your visitor; being told how you can hug your loved ones, and how you can’t hug them.

No, this is no life. I wish those people who are advocating these things would stop and really think about what they’re doing. If they really think this is the lesser of two evils, you have no idea of what evil is.

You’ve made a statement asking for people to help defend you and support you. How can they help?

By getting involved to end this historic and horrific crime against humanity called the death penalty. Whether or not they’re actually helping me on my case per se is irrelevant to me. As long as they’re helping to end the death penalty, then they are helping me, because I am my brother’s keeper. And my brothers’ and sisters’ keeper is me. We are all connected. My family is just as much a victim in this as other people’s families are victims. So we all have to help each other. This is my wish. That people will just get involved in abolishing the death penalty.