Black History Month From Death Row
Above Photo: A guard stands watch over the east block of death row at San Quentin Prison in California. (Eric Risberg / AP)
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 19 New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof. Visit savekevincooper.org for more information.
Death Row, San Quentin Prison—From Dec. 17, 2003, to Feb. 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 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 all right 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.
“They” were the volunteer prison guard executioners who were assigned to torture, then murder me at 12:01 a.m. on Feb. 10, 2004, the execution date. They traumatized me, terrorized me, belittled me and offered me a last meal—Tombstone pizza. They examined me, standing naked in an ice-cold room, on an 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. In truth, lynchings 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 had I been strapped to that death gurney is the main reason why there have not been any executions allowed in California since 2006. But to better understand the type of torture that happens to condemned inmates who are to be 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 of California 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 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 see the truth. Malcolm X once stated concerning the oppressors who run this country and who 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, Feb. 9, 2004, shortly after 6:15 p.m., 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 a holding cell, where my handcuffs were removed and I 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 removed from that cell. 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 a black man 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.
I 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 instructed, 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 reasons for this historical fact, including protecting their family members.)
Even with all this knowledge, I 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 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 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, 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 U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had granted me a stay of execution; but until hearing 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, “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 my 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 a pillow in it. I stood there in the cold, waiting for my pastor to come pray with me, all the while not knowing what the 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. It was 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 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 Supreme Court she would call and let me know.
I entered the death chamber waiting room around 6:35 p.m. About 8:15, the phone rang again. It was once again my attorney. She told me she’d 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 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 only from 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 that I had to experience. I will never be the same. 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 accompany 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 after 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 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 that 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 afterward 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 six months later without testing them.
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 corpus 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 of it is 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.”