The man the state of California was determined to murder has been saved from execution. But Kevin Cooper remains on death row–and we won’t let him die.
With pressure building around the state, across the U.S. and even internationally, a federal appeals court stepped in February 9 to stop Kevin’s execution and require testing of evidence that his lawyers say will prove he is innocent in the murder of four people in 1983. A few hours later, the Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the appeals court decision.
Kevin’s life was spared–no thanks to California officials who were ready to see him dead rather than allow an investigation that could expose a 20-year-old frame-up by racist police and fanatical prosecutors.
California’s new Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t even bother to hold a hearing before turning down Kevin’s clemency petition–something that hasn’t happened since capital punishment was reinstated in the 1970s, say opponents of the death penalty. And when the appeals court first blocked the execution on Monday morning, it was Democratic state Attorney General Bill Lockyer who went to the Supreme Court to demand that Kevin be killed.
But the growing pressure–mounted by Kevin’s lawyers in the courtroom and activists outside of it, and inspired by Kevin’s own determination from behind bars–became impossible to ignore.
With the scheduled execution approaching and the Supreme Court’s decision still in question, a multiracial crowd of some 300 people–surrounded by multiple TV crews and journalists–marched to San Quentin Prison, near San Francisco, for a protest at the execution site. As they rounded a bend, they found an equal number of people camped out at the prison gate.
At that very moment, Kevin’s supporters got the good news–and the spirited march turned into a joyous celebration. “The things that happened tonight make me want to fight forever,” said one of the marchers, Shannon Anderson, who joined the fight to save Kevin in recent weeks.
Rev. Jesse Jackson was among the people who took turns speaking about the importance of activism in exposing the injustices of Kevin’s case. Cameron Sturdevant of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty told the crowd: “A message has gone out, unmistakably, that people who are not judges and who are not attorneys can get involved in issues like the death penalty. We can send a message that says we will not tolerate injustice. We want real justice for Kevin Cooper.”
For years, one court after another has ignored the gaping holes in the case against Kevin. Prosecutors had blocked DNA testing of blond hair found clutched in one of the victim’s hands–hair that could not have belonged to Kevin, who is African American.
Kevin’s lawyers argue that if the hairs do not belong to a member of the victims’ family, than it must belong to one of the killers–contradicting prosecutors’ claims that Cooper acted alone. The appeals court decision said that the hairs should be tested–along with a bloody T-shirt that defense lawyers say was tampered with to implicate Kevin.
In 2002, after years of appeals, Kevin finally won his request to have DNA testing done on the blood-covered T-shirt, which prosecutors claimed was his. But before the tests were performed, the T-shirt was removed from a police locker by a prosecution criminologist–along with vials of Cooper’s blood and saliva. So it was no surprise when the DNA testing tied the shirt to Cooper. Kevin’s lawyers want the shirt tested for the presence of preservatives, which would be evidence of tampering.
These disclosures have led three jurors in his 1985 trial to say they wouldn’t have voted to convict him. “We feel, as jurors, we had a right to that evidence,” juror Kahloah Doxey told the New York Sun in an interview two days before Cooper’s execution date. “Do the DNA on the hair. See whose hair it was. The state owes us that much.”
Just eight hours before his scheduled execution, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay–and ordered the testing denied in earlier court decisions.
If the judges saw things differently, it is because activists turned up the heat when Kevin’s death warrant was signed on December 10. The campaign to save Kevin gathered momentum throughout January–and began to have an effect internationally, reaching Schwarzenegger’s native Austria, where the pending execution became front-page news.
We have won a tremendous victory by stopping this execution. But the fight is far from over. We can’t stop until Kevin wins the justice he deserves. And we shouldn’t be satisfied until we use this victory to build the struggle that will put an end to this corrupt and racist death penalty system, once and for all.
A surge of protest that saved Kevin’s life
When his execution date was set, Kevin Cooper called on his supporters to fight back. “There can be a vigil for me after I am dead,” Kevin wrote in a widely distributed statement, “but while I am alive, we must protest against my murder and this crime against humanity!”
That call to action produced a tide of opposition that grew and grew as Kevin’s execution approached. It reached a new stage last weekend when Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke out at a well-known Black church in Oakland, packed with more than 500 people. The crowd was simultaneously moved to tears and filled with outrage.
The gathering protests, vigils and meetings finally grabbed headlines in mainstream newspapers in California. But they didn’t come from nowhere. The growing opposition to Kevin’s execution was the product of many weeks of organizing that began when activists from a number of anti-death penalty and left-wing organizations met to map out a strategy after a date was set for Kevin’s execution.
At that meeting, Kevin’s supporters decided not to be silent and hope for justice from the courts–but to wage a visible public campaign to shame Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Among the events was a January 31 “Live from Death Row” meeting at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church sponsored by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty–where a rapt crowd of 200 listened to Kevin speak via speakerphone from San Quentin. The Campaign also held solidarity meetings in New York City, Chicago and other cities.
February 3 was a day of action for Kevin–with protests organized across California that spread to elsewhere in the U.S. In Santa Monica, 150 people came to a press conference with Jackson, the auxiliary bishop of the Los Angeles Diocese and more than 20 other religious leaders on the steps of Schwarzenegger’s church. Hundreds turned out to hear activist Angela Davis speak at University of California-Santa Cruz, and 75 people held a press conference and rally on the steps of the California capitol building in Sacramento.
That same day, California residents read a full-page ad in the San Jose Mercury News and the West Coast edition of the New York Times asking “Does California have the wrong man?” The ads were signed by Danny Glover, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and many other notable actors, intellectuals and political figures.
Meanwhile, people across the state and around the U.S. flooded Schwarzenegger’s office with phone calls, faxes and e-mails in support of Kevin. Over the weekend before Kevin’s scheduled execution, the governor’s office turned off its fax machine due to the large volume of faxes streaming in.
Protests against Kevin’s execution surged around the world. More than a dozen members of the European Parliament, led by French socialist Alain Krivine, signed on to the signature ad championing Kevin’s case.
In Schwarzenegger’s native Austria, the pending execution became front-page news, and top officials in the government called for clemency. In Schwarzenegger’s home state of Styria, the Green Party organized demonstrations and called for the local Schwarzenegger football stadium to be renamed.
It was this campaign–from the grassroots–that put the pressure on the federal courts to stop Kevin’s execution.
America’s death machine exposed
THE CASE of Kevin Cooper is contributing to the reexamination of the death penalty nationwide. From Illinois to Maryland, from Florida to California, the fact that innocent men and women routinely wind up on death row is undeniable.
The racism of the system is similarly incontestable. One-third of prisoners on California’s death row–the largest in the nation–are, like Kevin, African Americans, even though just 6 percent of California’s population is Black.
The growing questioning of the death penalty means that juries are shying away from imposing death sentences. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of people sentenced to death last year fell to 139–down from 319 in 1996.
Among Blacks and Latinos, the doubts run even deeper. Asked by pollsters to estimate how many innocent people are convicted of murder, Blacks said 23 percent and Latinos said 16 percent–compared to whites, who said 9 percent.
Media coverage of the developments in Kevin’s case is sure to drive this process even further. In California, the tone of articles in the mainstream press shifted radically after Kevin’s execution date was set in early December–when stories portrayed him as a monster.
Because of the public campaign of activism to expose the problems in the case against Kevin, the reality began to seep into the media. The San Francisco Chronicle even published editorials urging readers to call on Schwarzenegger to grant clemency–along with an article that pointed out Kevin’s powerful writings, available on the Web at <savekevincooper.org>.
All this exposes the reality about the supposed “overwhelming” support for the death penalty. Support may be broad, but it’s very shallow. The more that people learn about the reality of the death penalty, the more they question it.
The fact is that there are Kevin Coopers across the <U.S.–innocent> men and women are trapped in the criminal justice system, targeted by fanatical prosecutors, unable to afford competent lawyers, victims of racist police and “get-tough” laws pushed by Democrats and Republicans alike. Kevin’s case is the perfect illustration of why the criminal justice system doesn’t deliver justice–and why the death penalty must be abolished across the U.S.
Todd Chretien, Danielle Heck, Eric Ruder and Lee Sustar contributed to this report.
ALAN MAASS is the editor of the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at: email@example.com