Behind Bars

Interview of Kevin Cooper

By Carole Seligman

Kevin Cooper is an innocent death row prisoner who has been in San Quentin Prison for over 25 years. This interview was conducted on July 21.

Carole Seligman: What do you mean by saying you were tortured at San Quentin?

Kevin Cooper: There are different types of torture. Some torture is physical, as what happened to Stanley Tookie Williams inside that death chamber on December 13, 2005. But there are also other types of torture, such as emotional torture, psychological torture, mental torture. All these other things that happen when the state government of California, or any other state, goes about ritualizing death; when they put a person through the death ritual in order to torture them physically and get ready to murder them. All I know is this: My mind was messed up. My psyche was messed up, all because these people want to do some unnatural acts to me. And if this sounds bad, and it sounds crazy, and if you can’t understand it, that’s because this thing they do to us is so unnatural that you can’t put it into words. And that is part of the torture.

When you try to explain to somebody what they’ve done to you, you can’t! When they search your arms for veins for where to stick needles; when they send psychiatrists to your cage and ask if you are all right so that they won’t be cheated by you out of your death, because you might commit suicide. All these things are unnatural. And now this system, which is on hold, is trying to do something even more unnatural. They’re trying to find a humane way to commit murder. You can’t do that. It’s impossible. There is no humane way to commit murder. And all of this is all part of torture. Even though the courts don’t recognize it as such, and the system as a whole will not acknowledge it as such. It’s torture. And I went through it.

Carole Seligman: You recently took part, by telephone, in a tour, called “Lynching Then and Now,” that was sponsored by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. The tour was about the roots of the current American death penalty in slavery in this country. Could you tell us about that idea of linking the death penalty as it is practiced today in the United States with the legacy of slavery?

Kevin Cooper: As in all incidences, there are different versions of every story. My version is this: I am still a slave, because I am inside this prison, this modern day plantation. Every inmate on death row in this country is in fact a slave according to the 13th amendment to the Constitution. Those people who were duly convicted were not free when the emancipation proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln. Thus we are stuck in slave status. And the same thing that was done to slaves back in the days [of slavery] in the 1700s and 1800s is still being done to us, though we’re told, “times have changed.”

How is it being done? Like this: Death, in and of itself, is freedom. It was freedom for slaves then. It is freedom for slaves now. In order to keep slavery alive and well, and to keep people participating in chattel slavery, they torture people. They outright torture them physically. They would gather all the slaves around and they would torture one and they would say, “This is what happens to you if you don’t do this, or if you do, do this. You won’t just get death, you’ll get tortured.”

It was the torture that precedes death, which kept all the slaves working their asses off for their lives. And now you’ve got today. Death, in these circumstances in which I’m forced to live, is freedom. It is my way out. It is a way where I cannot be shackled, or handcuffed or nothing that these people do to me. Death frees me from this. These people know it, so they want to torture us like they tortured Stanley Tookie Williams inside those death chambers in order that we will not be free, as we want to be; that we will feel their violence, their hatred toward us. That is just one part, but a very important part, of how they used torture and the death penalty to keep people enslaved.

Today they say the death penalty is a deterrent. But it’s not a deterrent The only thing it may deter people from, if anything, is getting caught. Because if people get caught, they know they’re going to get tortured. They’re not just going to get dead. They’re going to get tortured first. And that’s what these people do. They torture us.

The death penalty in my mind is used as a scapegoat in order to keep people in their “proper” place in society. To keep them in line. And if you don’t do what certain people say, they’ll get rid of you.

Understand the mentality of this country. Everything they do, they kill.

They kill the fish in the ocean. They kill the birds in the sky. They kill the plants in the ground.

This is a kill mentality society that we live in. And the poorer that you are, and the darker your skin, the more these people will use these things like the death penalty and the prisons to justify doing to you whatever they do.

Slavery is alive today just as it was alive throughout the history of this country in its various forms.

Carole Seligman: I want to ask you about the dissent written by Judge Fletcher in the Appeals Court. You have said that this dissent was unprecedented. Could you outline the main points of the dissent and tell us why the Supreme Court ignored it?

Kevin Cooper: I can’t answer why the Supreme Court ignored it. They’re in their own world. But I do know that Judge Fletcher’s dissent, which was agreed to by 11 Federal Circuit Judges, was unprecedented because it has never been done before.  

In the history of death penalty cases, there have never been 11 federal circuit judges who came out on the side of a death row inmate. There has never been five Federal Circuit Judges that said that a death row inmate was innocent or said that a state was maybe about to execute that innocent man. So that’s one reason why it’s unprecedented.

It’s also unprecedented in its length. It is 103-plus pages. And within those 103-plus pages, Judge Fletcher not only goes step by step through the history of this case and my wrongful conviction, but he also proves how the State of California has violated my Constitutional Rights by withholding material exculpatory evidence up to eight times, depending how you count them. For example, they withheld the paperwork. Then they withheld things other than the paperwork. And they shouldn’t have withheld any of it! He exposed how the state has framed me, step by step, how they went about doing things. How they went about ignoring evidence that pointed to other people. And everything. So this, in itself is unprecedented.

Throughout the history of this country some cases have come out, maybe one at a time, where judges have lied and said a person is guilty, but judges don’t lie and say a person’s innocent! So this, together, is all unprecedented.

Carole Seligman: You’ve made a statement asking for people to help defend you and support you. How can they help?

Kevin Cooper: By getting involved to end this historic and horrific crime against humanity called the Death Penalty. Whether or not they’re actually helping me on my case per se is irrelevant to me. As long as they’re helping to end the death penalty, then they are helping me, because I am my brother’s keeper. And my brother and sisters’ keeper is me. We are all connected. We’re all in this. My family is just as much a victim in this as other people’s families are victims. So we all have to help each other.

This is my wish. That people will just get involved in abolishing death penalty.

Carole Seligman: Some people in the abolition movement have put forward sentences of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) as an alternative for death row prisoners. What do you think about that idea?

Kevin Cooper: Some people call it permanent imprisonment. But, whatever you call it, it’s a death sentence. When they execute you, you’re dead without parole. And when you get life, without the possibility of parole, you’re dead without parole. It’s all the same thing. These people, for the most part, in my opinion, who are advocating this idea of life without the possibility of parole, have no idea what it’s like to live in these places.

This is no life! Prison correction officer looking up your butt three or four times a day. Eating food that’s not fit for animals. Being told what you can do and can’t do all the time. Being led around like an animal. This is no life. Being paid slave wages for a hard day’s work. Being told how to kiss your visitor; being told how you can hug your loved ones and how you can’t hug ’em. No, no, this is no life. This is no life. I wish those people who are advocating these things would stop and really think about what they’re doing. If they really think this is the lesser of two evils, they have no idea of what evil is.

Carole Seligman: Kevin, what you are saying now relates to the idea of the tour “Lynching Then and Now, the Roots of the Death Penalty in Slavery,” that you were a part of. Can you comment on that?

Kevin Cooper: Those people on those plantations were doing life without parole. I don’t think they liked it too well. This prison industrial complex is a big plantation. Its foundation is built upon slavery. We people who are stuck in these places are still slaves.

You are listening to the voice of a 21st century slave because I have not been freed under the Emancipation Proclamation that Abraham Lincoln signed. Nor has any other man or woman in prison or on Death Row.

Carole Seligman: Is there anything else you would like to say?

Kevin Cooper: All over this world, wherever there are human beings, there is one group of people oppressing another group of people. Those people who are being oppressed are all crying out the same thing. No matter what language they say it in, no matter what country they say it from. They are all telling their oppressor to get his foot off our neck; his needles out our arms, his bullets out our back, and his shackles off our ankles. He has no right to oppress us, or do the things to us that he is doing; ’cause, after all, he’s just a human being, no better and no worse than us. And yet because of his class or his position in life, he and his choose to mess over us ’cause they don’t have to. They choose to. And this must come to an end.

Carole Seligman is an antiwar and human rights activist.