Kevin Cooper and the Midnight Needle

The delayed execution of Kevin Cooper represents everything wrong with the death penalty. Not that there’s even reasonable doubt that Cooper didn’t commit the crime and a horrific one it was too: he bludgeoned and cut the throats of three children and two adults to steal the family’s car. One of the kids survived. That kid grew up lobbying for Cooper’s innocence until DNA definitively linked Cooper to the crime; the survivor now wants him dead. Contrary to Cooper’s attorneys and race demagogues like Jesse Jackson, the evidence against Cooper was and is overwhelmingly conclusive of his guilt. The demagogues claim the police planted the DNA implicating Cooper because there was enormous pressure on them to solve the case. But all the stuff now being produced as new evidence that Cooper didn’t do it is in fact old stuff previously discredited.

If my family had been slaughtered like the family Cooper slaughtered I’d want him dead, too, and I doubt if I’d have any trouble making him dead myself. Still, though, here goes another guy from one class of Americans who get the death penalty at a rate far greater than persons from the wealthier, paler classes. There’s a remote possibility that Cooper didn’t do it, that the cops framed him, but it’s so remote as to be non-existent. But if there’s any doubt whatsoever, the doomed should not get the midnight needle. If Justice were truly blind, if every defendant got a competent defense, the death penalty would still not serve society because there’s no evidence killers have ever been deterred from murder because the penalty is death.

If we’re going to have a death penalty, we ought to make wholesale changes in the law; as it is, especially with ever more draconian mandatory minimums for more and more offenses and with an expanded death penalty that gets criminals the ultimate penalty for more categories of capital crime, there’s every existing incentive for criminals to go ahead and knock off not only their primary target, but all the witnesses too. The law actually encourages murder.

The midnight needle is not a humane way to administer capital punishment. It’s creepy and, again, where’s the deterrent quotient? 50 people watching a guy stick a needle in a guy strapped to a gurney inside a prison at midnight? Where’s the cautionary public utility? Who’s that going to deter? If we’re going to kill people to prevent killing, we ought to charge admission and do it by hanging or firing squad at Candlestick Park on a Saturday afternoon on national television with all proceeds going to the families of the victims. Families would have the option of throwing open the trap door on the scaffold or the option of being one of the live ammo shooters. Government might then be able to plausibly claim it went all-out to achieve maximum deterrent effect.

And there’s the simply human fact that lots of people who’ve done horrible things grow and change into entirely different persons than the ones they were when they did evil. The true psychopaths, the ones who don’t change, can simply be kept locked away forever which, in our bizarre society, turns out to be cheaper than the execution process.

Cooper, by all accounts, is not the rampaging nut case he was as a kid. Being locked up all these years waiting to die, which of coursed is cruel and inhumane by itself because it amounts to torture, and these last minute delays only add to the torture, had changed him into a human being. Holding out the promise of life to a condemned man while a bunch of anonymous, tennis-playing judges take years to get around to reviewing the case is pure sadism, and not in any way a rational process. Half the mopes on San Quentin’s Death Row don’t even have lawyers! What kind of death sentence appeals do you suppose they’re getting? And who knows how many executed persons have been innocent? Anyone who has had regular courtroom exposure knows that for most defendants in criminal cases justice is a crapshoot, front to back.

Finally, the death penalty is un-American. If America stands for hope and redemption, which it does, the death penalty is profoundly anti-American. And socially brutalizing. This country grows institutionally more cruel every day, but the irony is that our population is mostly not cruel, and probably not for the death penalty if the media didn’t constantly bombard us with atrocity stories that bamboozle us into thinking that an occasional midnight revenge killing will make us safer from crime.

BRUCE ANDERSON is editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, America’s greatest newspaper. He can be reached at