Incarceration Nation

Stop the Execution of Kevin Cooper

By Carole Seligman

The life of Kevin Cooper, an innocent man who has spent over 30 years on Death Row at San Quentin California State Prison, robbed of most of his adult life, lies in the balance. Though clearly innocent, he was convicted of a horrific murder of three members of a family and their child guest and has exhausted all his legal appeals. Several judges have dissented from decisions upholding this death sentence, even stating: “California may be about to execute an innocent man.”

How can the life of an innocent person, who has been framed and spent 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, be saved? And when I speak of saving his life, I’m not talking about converting his death sentence to a sentence of Life-Without-Parole, which many call “slow death row,” because the outcome is the same—the person only leaves prison dead. No. Kevin Cooper must be freed, not executed, not kept in prison another day!

The lawyers, Norm Hile and David Alexander, of the law firm Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe, LLP, obtained in 1983 through the Innocence Project, have submitted a clemency petition to California Governor Jerry Brown, in a last effort to save Kevin’s life and win his freedom. California’s execution machinery has been halted for the past several years, but death penalty supporters in law enforcement are fighting to bring it back into use, placing the issue on the ballot with a deceptive name, the Death Penalty Reform and Savings Initiative. If they succeed, Kevin Cooper is going to be murdered by the state, unless Governor Jerry Brown grants the clemency petition and conducts a new investigation of the case.

The clemency petition is a remarkable document. It is 235-pages long, not counting two compact disks containing 256 photographic and documentary exhibits in the case. It is such a thorough document, I believe it should be used in the training of criminal justice lawyers, because it is a comprehensive explanation of everything that can and does go wrong to send an innocent person to their death at the hands of the state. The petition is an important document, not just for future attorneys, but for anyone who wants to know how the criminal “justice” system works in the United States of America. 

Of course the most important aspect of the petition is that it proves Kevin Cooper’s innocence beyond any shadow of doubt. The Table of Contents of the petition, itself six pages, lists in full sentence form the facts of the case showing that Mr. Cooper did not commit the murders. For example, Section VI is titled: “The vast majority of the evidence the California Supreme Court cited in 1991 has been called into question or completely undermined...p. 93.” This is followed by 12 sections all about the planting of evidence, the “questionable” treatment of evidence, and the finding of new evidence. The Table of Contents lays out in 12 sections all the facts of the frame-up, but also presents a broad context for this case.

The petition gives seven examples of some of the innocent prisoners who were executed, including: Cameron Todd Willingham, Carlos DeLuna, Ruben Cantu, Claude Howard Jones, and David Spence in Texas, Leo Jones in Florida, and Troy Davis in Georgia. It also discusses the growing number of people exonerated after serving long prison terms for crimes they did not commit, including 1,733 people exonerated since 1989. 

The clemency petition includes a book by Patrick O’Connor, The Chino Hills Murders and the Framing of Kevin Cooper, who also wrote an excellent book about the frame up of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Exhibits attached to the petition include a Final Merits Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a part of the Organization of American States, which calls for a review of the trial and sentence.

Significantly, two former prosecutors, both who sent innocent men to death row (one who was executed in Texas, and one who spent 30 years on death row in Louisiana) in acts of mea culpa, have written letters to Governor Brown in support of clemency, both convinced of Kevin’s innocence. The American BAR Association and the California Lawyers Association for Criminal Justice have also written letters to Governor Brown and the Kevin Cooper Defense Committee and the Campaign to End the Death Penalty are working to get others to write letters in support of Kevin to the Governor.

Kevin Cooper, although suffering post-traumatic stress in the wake of nearly being executed in 2004, coming within three hours and 42 minutes from execution by lethal injection, has not only retained his sanity, but has developed as a passionate supporter of human rights and a defiant, cogent writer and speaker against the barbarity of capital punishment. On March 30, he spoke via telephone to a pubic meeting of Coloradans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty; one of several events where he addressed a live audience in his own words. Carla Turner, the organizer of the event, said of Kevin, after his phone presentation, “He’s changing the world.” He also participated by phone in an event in Oakland, California, on April 16th, which hosted Mark Clements of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. Clements was a long held victim of Chicago Police Detective, Jon Burge, known for torturing innocent men into making false confessions, then locking them up for decades.

Kevin Cooper’s most recent essay, “Call It What It Is!” demands that the death penalty be called “homicide,” “murder”—and not be prettified because it is carried out by the state.  He writes most convincingly about how the “justice system,” especially capital punishment, is “the last vestige of slavery,” used only against the poor.

This web site publishes many essays by Kevin Cooper: And the Prison Radio website, has audio recordings of Kevin’s essays in his own voice. 

Kevin’s supporters, and Kevin himself, believe that if the Governor grants clemency and Kevin is exonerated, this could strike the death knell for the barbaric death penalty, not only in California, but in the United States as a whole. After all, no one in their right mind can justify executing someone who is innocent of the crime they were convicted of.  And people who support human rights cannot justify granting the state the power of execution.

The clemency petition can be read at this web site: