2018: The Year of the Executioner?
Editor’s note: 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 from the defense. His case was scrutinized in a June 17, 2017, New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof. Visit savekevincooper.org for more information.
DEATH ROW, SAN QUENTIN, Calif.—Many years ago, Protestant pastor and poet Martin Niemoller famously wrote of the Nazi era:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
I, Kevin Cooper, am not a murderer, but I am speaking out against murder, whether at the hands of people or, even worse, at the hands of the government.
As this new year begins, the state of California, because of the voters’ approval of Proposition 66, finds itself closer to resuming executions, or, in the words of death penalty supporters, “justice.” Justice in 2018 is just like justice in yesteryear, especially when it comes to who lives and who dies by the use of capital punishment.
In my poor man’s dictionary, the definition of the word “justice” is (1) the administration of what is just (as by assigning merited rewards or punishments; (2) judge; (3) the administration of law; (4) fairness; also: righteousness.
The death penalty, as we know it and as it has always been, has been proved to be unfair, unjust and unrighteous—morally and ethically. Consider that between 1973 and 2017, 160 death row inmates have been exonerated nationally, and a 2014 study estimated that 1 out of 25 people on death row across the United States are innocent. From 2000 to 2011, there were an average of five exonerations a year. In 2017, there were four. We know that some innocent people on death row have been executed. This is unjust, unfair and unrighteous.
The only thing truth has in common with the definition of the word “justice” in my poor man’s dictionary is “the administration and procedure of law.” Most of us know and understand that from what we see, read and continue to learn about this country and its laws and/or the administration of them and its procedures; none of which, in fact, has anything to do with real justice.
Whoever is administering justice, and their version or understanding of justice, is what really matters. For example, Democrats and Republicans, both of whom claim to want to stand for justice, do so according to their own political ideology, which is as different as night and day. This will not change in 2018, just as the ideologies of women and men won’t change when it comes to certain things.
As I continue to live in this modern-day plantation against my will, as certain people seek their form of “justice” against me for murders I did not commit, I will not be silent. Here in this inhumane place where loneliness is my best friend and death is my constant companion, I must do what the late civil rights activist Ella Baker taught many of us to do, which is to work for a cause that “is bigger than any organization, bigger than any group of people, and it is the cause of humanity. The cause is the cause that brings us together—the drive of the human spirit for freedom.”
In my mind, there can be no bigger cause in 2018 than stopping the resumption of the death penalty in California. This is my cause for justice. This cause for which I fight has been around far too long. It is also a very real part of our collective humanity and freedom, as well as part of our inhumanity and chattel slavery, which certain death penalty supporters refuse to acknowledge.
In this country, rich white man’s justice always has been poor black man’s grief. Within this grief has been the unjust use of the death penalty in all of its various forms. So in 2018, this fight, this cause to end capital punishment, must continue, and it will. Whether advocates call it justice, retribution, revenge or even God’s will, it is only being used against its poorest people, especially its minorities.
As an innocent man sitting here on San Quentin’s death row, I have learned that “justice” for those who sent me here in 1985 is the same “justice” they seek in 2018, which is my murder at the hands of the state. They don’t care if I am tortured by lethal poison, or that my family will suffer just as theirs has suffered, or that a crime against humanity will be committed—against me by them—or that what they support is honestly against everything their Christian God stands for. They are pained by the brutal torture and execution of Jesus but willingly, often enthusiastically, endorse exacting that same punishment of execution on others today.
All they know is that I was convicted of murder—though wrongfully convicted—and now they want to have their red, white and blue poison pumped into my black body until I am no more.
Real justice for me, my family, friends and supporters is my release from this hell and/or a new trial so the whole truth can be exposed to the world, detailing what the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and district attorney have done to me from 1983 through today, from planting, destroying and tampering with evidence that could have proved my innocence before and after my trial to continuing to fight against the advanced DNA tests that could prove my innocence and point to the real killers.
Real justice for the families of the victims in this case is finding and prosecuting the real killers. Real justice is having Gov. Jerry Brown grant me an innocence hearing before the state executes an innocent man—me.
The law enforcement people and prosecutors in my case do not seek justice. They seek closure. They believe my execution would end this case. I believe it wouldn’t.
I do want to get out of this prison, but whatever happens to me, as long as I live, I will continue to stand up and speak out against the death penalty in this state and in this country. And if I am executed, an innocent man, I know there will be people left to speak out for me and others like me, condemned to die in this profoundly flawed system of “justice.”