Subscribe
Opinion | TD originals

Lying With a Straight Face

San Bernardino District Attorney Michael Ramos discusses his opposition to abolishing the death penalty at a 2012 press conference. (YouTube)

DEATH ROW, SAN QUENTIN, Calif.— “There are no innocent people on death row in California.” Those were the words of San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos when he appeared in TV commercials to urge voters to pass Proposition 66 on the November 2016 ballot to speed up executions in California.

The measure passed, but his words were not true.

Many conservative, right-wing, death-penalty-supporting politicians, law enforcement personnel and just citizens want so badly to believe this untruth. I remember when conservative right-wing columnist Debra J. Saunders (who seemed to be the lone Republican on the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper editorial pages before she left the newspaper in 2016) used to quote California Gov. Jerry Brown in many of her pro-death-penalty speeches or columns by saying, “Jerry Brown told me that there are no innocent people on death row.”

Saunders, now a columnist for a Las Vegas newspaper, was not the only one to whom Brown expressed that opinion. When he was attorney general, in a letter June 30, 2008, to then-chair John Van de Kamp of the Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, Brown wrote, “I know of no defendant facing execution who is innocent of the crime for which he was convicted and sentenced.”

He may not have known of any, but that does not mean they don’t exist. From 1981 to 2018, four men sentenced to death in California were exonerated, the latest being on Brown’s watch this year. They were all innocent. A 2014 study for the National Academy of Sciences reported that, nationally, 4.1 percent of death row inmates are innocent. For California, that would mean that about 30 people of the 747 currently on death row are not guilty of the crimes for which they were sentenced to die.

Most recently, the California Supreme Court ruled in the case of Vicente Figueroa Benavides, a man who had been living on death row in the state of California for 24 years, that he was convicted with false evidence. The Kern County district attorney refused to retry this case, and in April of 2018, Benavides was walked off San Quentin prison grounds and into the arms of his family and attorneys a free man.

The California Supreme Court filed its opinion on this case in March of this year, and I have not heard a peep out of the mouth of Ramos, Saunders or any of the other death penalty supporters, or to use the words of University of San Francisco Law School professor Lara Bazelon, “innocence deniers.” Neither did Brown correct his past statements.

Any person with common sense would know that there have to be innocent people on death row and in prison, if only because this modern-day plantation and death camp is run and controlled by mere human beings who, by their very nature, make great mistakes, and some of them are also corrupt. We know for certain Ramos, Saunders, Brown and others who ever said there are no innocent people on death row in this state have been proved wrong.

Truth be told, and this is the case in any circumstance, “if there’s one, there’s more”—and that is a fact. Kern County is a conservative Republican county, just like San Bernardino, Riverside, San Diego and other counties with high death penalty convictions in this state. What happened to Benavides is not an isolated incident; it can’t be. Every inmate on death row in this state went through the same legal process that Benavides went through, and if false evidence was used against him, then false evidence may have been used in other death row inmates’ cases.

Look at my case. I was convicted with false evidence by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and district attorney’s office. Who is the district attorney of San Bernardino County presently? Michael Ramos, the same man who stuck his face in front of a TV camera and lied with a straight face when he said that there are no innocent people on death row. (He will only be in office through Dec. 31, as he was ousted by voters in June.)

Most Americans say they don’t trust politicians, nor do they trust the government. They say there is too much government, and they do not want the government to tell them what to say, think or believe. This is the Republican way of thinking when it comes to politicians and the government, whether it be state or federal.

Yet at the same time they refuse to acknowledge that certain politicians like Ramos, for example, are telling them who should live and who should die. They also claim the criminal justice system is so perfect there are no innocent people on death row, so you do not have to worry about an innocent person being tortured and murdered in your name by the government.

This is an American political narrative, to lie with a straight face to achieve an objective, which, for the most part and historically speaking, is to oppress the people deemed as “the other” in this divided country—especially the poor people who fill up these modern-day plantations and its death rows. In doing so, they drown out the voices of the people who they want to either keep in prison or murder. So, when people like me in places like this scream out at the top of our lungs that we are innocent, people like Ramos, Saunders, Brown and others can put their hand on a Bible and swear in the name of God that there are no innocent people on death row, and that any death row inmates who say they are innocent are lying.

And who are you, Mr. and Mrs. Society, going to believe: an elected district attorney or a convicted murderer? You need not even look at the “false evidence” or the prosecutorial misconduct or any of the other constitutional violations that may have happened, because you believe the government and its keepers do not lie.

The injustices that are happening all over this country, mostly to people of color and the poor, can no longer be ignored. Police misconduct is being reported across the country, in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Orange County, Calif.—everywhere. There are many people who are standing up, speaking out and fighting back against these injustices, while people like Ramos and others don’t want to admit these injustices exist. But they do.

To continue to lie about them with a straight face does great harm not just to individuals wrongly accused and prosecuted but at a cost to the integrity of a criminal justice system that has to work for all. Those same types of political liars back in the day said with a straight face there were “happy slaves” and “slavery was the best thing that could ever have happened to black people.” While I am a modern-day slave, I damn sure am not happy, nor were my ancestors. Like them, I am innocent, and I just want to be free, and that is no lie.

Kevin Cooper
Kevin Cooper is a death row inmate at California's San Quentin Prison. In 1985, he was convicted of a 1983 quadruple murder and sentenced to death in a trial in which evidence that might have exonerated him…
Kevin Cooper

Now you can personalize your Truthdig experience. To bookmark your favorite articles, please create a user profile.

Personalize your Truthdig experience. Choose authors to follow, bookmark your favorite articles and more.
Your Truthdig, your way. Access your favorite authors, articles and more.
or
or

A password will be e-mailed to you.

Statements and opinions expressed in articles and comments are those of the authors, not Truthdig. Truthdig takes no responsibility for such statements or opinions.