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Who Is Kevin Cooper?

A recent photo of the author, taken at San Quentin State Prison in California. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Cooper)

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.

Throughout my life, people have speculated about who Kevin Cooper is, or who they think I am. This is especially true since I was first sought, then arrested, and then wrongly convicted of what was dubbed by the mainstream media as the Chino Hills Murders. It is this horrific crime that sent me to California’s death row and for which I was almost executed in 2004.

It is an odd experience to become part of the American historical narrative, to have words spoken and written about oneself in such a way that it strengthens the storyteller’s version of the subject, often falsely or to the degradation of the person about whom they are writing or speaking.

This has happened to me, and it will, in all probability, happen again in the future.

For example, the Los Angeles Times published an article about me in July 2018 written by 10 students from Northwestern University’s Medill Justice Project. It was so incomplete and contained such serious errors that people who know my case well wonder why the Times published it without careful fact-checking. These were students, not professional journalists! My lawyer, Norman Hile, was standing by to fact-check the story, but no one called him. The Times published two corrections of the several that were made in the story.

The students did correctly note that I am writing a memoir I have titled, “My Life On Your Death Row,” and that I write for Truthdig, and that I speak with journalists and address gatherings from prison via phone. To be sure, my innocence has been pronounced by a number of prominent people, including an emissary of the pope, an international human rights commission, appellate justices, journalists and people inside and outside the legal community. You can read a factual article about my case in The New York Times here and in factual articles posted on Truthdig.

But I am more than all of this. When I read something about me and do not recognize that person, I want to shout out who I am, in my own words. I want people who don’t know me to ask: “Who Is Kevin Cooper?”

This is who I am:

First and foremost, I, Kevin Cooper, am a human being, a spiritual person and an innocent person on death row in the state of California. I am a father, a grandfather, a son and a brother. I am an uncle and a great-uncle, as well as a godson, nephew and cousin; I am a real part of a real American family.

I am a proud African-American man, and yes, I am a writer, a soon-to-be author and a painter/artist. I am an orator and a student, as I am still learning many new things, especially this country’s historical and present-day treatment of its poor and minority peoples, including immigrants.

I am a self-made man, who, like you, has the God-given right to my life, which no man or government has the right to take. Not the moral right, the legal right, or any other type of so-called right. I was spared in 2004 from a near-death experience, an execution, called “legal homicide” by the great state of California. I was a survivor of a sick, state-sanctioned ritual of death that took place on Dec. 17, 2003, when I was told that I was to be legally murdered by the volunteer executioners here at San Quentin prison on Feb. 10, 2004.

This torture did not end with the stay of execution that I received on Feb. 9, 2004. It continued for years afterward, because of the post-traumatic stress that I suffered due to having come within three hours and 42 minutes of being strapped down to that death gurney, having razor-sharp needles stuck in my arms, being injected and tortured with red, white and blue poison in my black body, and then murdered by so-called justice-seeking, God-fearing, revenge-wanting Californians!

I am also a pen pal who writes to many people in different parts of the world. I am a friend, a teacher, a person who respects all people and their uniqueness and differences, no matter who or what they are. I am a music lover, an animal lover, a lover of books and history. I am a humanitarian, and I donate my artwork and paintings to different people and nonprofit groups and organizations so that they can sell them to raise money for their cause.

I am an abolitionist who speaks out at every chance I get against the death penalty by sharing with all people who will listen America’s troubled history with the death penalty, and my near-death experience in 2004.

This tortured and troubled history most definitely includes women who have been tortured and murdered in the name of the law, historically and in the present day. I am a male feminist, because I truly believe in the equality of women.

I am an athlete who still plays basketball and enjoys watching damn near all sports on TV. While I can go on and on about who I am, just in these things that I have written, you have learned far more about me than what those student journalists wrote about who they thought I was, or am.

But to not leave out anything, let me say this about me: I am a reformed small-time criminal. I have rehabilitated myself while on your death row. I got rid of the small-time criminal, the uneducated and miseducated person that I once was. I was a poorly educated child who ran away from home countless times, beginning at age 6, to escape senseless beatings, only to be returned. I became a well-read adult in prison, reading scores of books and learning new words by studying the dictionary at my side.

I am a nonviolent man. I am an educated man and a person who is being talked about by certain people in outdated terms. I will not allow those students from the Medill Justice Project or anyone else to define me, or to tell a story about me that is not the truth. Why?

Because I, Kevin Cooper, am a fighter and will not be a stereotype, or a victim of this country’s historical narrative as it pertains to black men who are in prison, who have small-time criminal histories, and who, after all, are products of America.

This is who I am.

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

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