Lawyering for the People: Kevin Cooper, the Death Penalty and Mass Incarceration

On November 6th, 2015, the San Francisco and Hastings Chapters of the NLG organized a panel, “Lawyering for the People: Kevin Cooper, the Death Penalty and Mass Incarceration."

Mr. Cooper is an innocent man on death row in San Quentin, who was framed for the murder of a family of four in Chino Hills, San Bernardino in 1983. He called in to the panel from San Quentin and made the following statement.

All right. Good evening. I'm Kevin Cooper. I have a short statement I'd like to make. And I'd like to do so from a historical perspective because, as William Faulkner wrote, “History is not was, history is.” What's going on today, in America, with the death penalty, mass incarceration and LWOP, life in prison without the possibility of parole, is historic.

Fifty years ago, Malcolm X stated in his Message to the Grassroots - the youth of this time, who he was speaking to – he said, “Don't be shocked, when I say I was in prison. You are still in prison.” That's what America means, it means prison. So here we are in the 21st century, and to many poor people and people of color, America still means prison. This is a historical case. This country leads the world in imprisoning its poor people, and especially its poor minority people. This country called America. This historic truth is one of the reasons that we are having this event tonight, and are still fighting for our connected human rights.

A long time ago, in this country, United States Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, he stated, to people who were fighting for their connected civil rights at that time, and were told, under the law, that what they were doing was wrong, that they couldn't fight for their rights, because it was against the law to do so, he said: “Do what's right, and wait for the law to catch up.” Do what's right, and wait for the law to catch up. So here we are, this evening, doing what's right. Waiting for the law to catch up, on such important issues as mass incarceration, the death penalty, and life in prison without the possibility of parole.

There's something wrong in this system, in this country, in this world, when people can still be executed, if they are innocent, or especially because they're black. And that's where I am right now in my life, on death row, an innocent man, who this State wants to execute, despite all the evidence that we have proving my innocence. Not just my innocence, but the fact that I was framed by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department. This is unbelievable – that here in the 21st Century, these things can still happen.

I, like many people, didn't know what happened to me, because it happened to me without my knowledge, without my permission, without me being conscious to the fact that it was happening. When I was in prison, things like racism, like classism, sexism, homophobia and religious prejudice and all the other things, happened before I was incarcerated at San Quentin, because it's these things that got me to San Quentin, because they're right within America's criminal justice system.

And this institutional racism, this white supremacy, is just as real today as it was yesteryear. Like back in 1857, when then United States Supreme Court Justice, Roger B. Taney, told slave and black man Dred Scott that he had no rights that the white man was bound to respect. I feel like a 21st century Dred Scott. Because I have no rights that these people are bound to respect.

And I'm sure not the only one. It feels this way in their system.

Thurgood Marshall knew something, then, that we know now. For the most part, in American history, the law has been on the wrong side of history. It's on the wrong side of history now. It's up to us to make this system – this law – become right. And the only way I believe that we can do it is by having events like this, all over this country. By organizing, agitating and demanding change.

My people, African Americans, have been in prison in this country since we got here in 1690. First we were in prison on slave ships. Then we were in prison on plantations – chattel slavery. And here today, we're still in prison. We're the most imprisoned people in this country! Why? What did we do? What is there about this blackness, this skin, that makes us targets for this system? Everybody knows it's racist, but yet it's still happening. Every report, that any group of people that are for real, and serious, put together says that this system is racist, yet this stuff still happens. And it's been happening.

Malcolm X said that America means prison. And that was way back in the early 1960s. And here we are in 2015 in the 21st century and America still means prison. You know, I don't – well let me - I had something else to say but I'll say this instead, to show you how for real these people are about killing us.

This evening, about six o'clock, they passed out these new lethal injection protocols. This one drug thing. The State of California now has their own compounding drug pharmacy. They're going to make their own drugs, so they can kill us. And they send psychiatrists around here who are talking to inmates who don't have any appeals left. But they don't even want to talk about this, to hear everything we have to say. I personally told the person I had not to say anything and don't come back because I don't want to talk to them any more. But this is part of their psychological warfare, starting to kill some of us already, just by doing this stuff, and they know it. Here in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave.

I know that many of you are law students. And I hope for your sake and for the sake of future generations that you learn the truth about this criminal justice system. Because if you do, you will find out that it's not all that it should be, all that it can be or all that it will be. It's not the best in the world, as people claim it is. It will never be, as long as political ideology reigns supreme. The United States Constitution – what American law is built on and based on – is only as good as any five members of the United States Supreme Court says it is at any one time, any one time in history or any case. That's not the law per se. That's political ideology.

And this is what happened to me in Federal District Court, so much so that my attorney, Norm Hile, who was truly the best I had, because he was fighting for my life like he's fighting for his own, he told Federal District Judge Marilyn Huff that she was violating my constitutional rights. He told her that with all these Brady violations that I had in this case, I should have gotten reversed a long time ago. For those of you who don't know what a Brady violation is, it's the State's withholding of material exculpatory evidence. And I got about five of those. They [the prosecution] just withheld evidence. On purpose. All the time. But because of her [Judge Marilyn Huff's] political ideology, which is right wing Republican conservative, she let them get away with it. She just paid us no mind. But if she don't do it, I get a new trial and I get out of here. That was ten years ago.

So I say these different things to you because all of this is connected to me as a black man: my history, my present, and my possible future. And yet I fight on. I could give up. But I can't. I won't. And furthermore, I hope that you will fight, not just for me, but for you, for yourself, because what happened to me could happen to you. Especially if you're poor in America. This is about the haves and the have nots. And the haves, have not made it to death row. There's nobody on death row but poor people.

So the question is, what are you gonna do about it?

I don't know how many of you are there, but I thank you for coming. I wouldn't care if there was only one person who came, because that one person can make a difference, for real. And we have to do so at this point in time, in the history of this world, in the history of this State. So I hope this gives you something to think about.

I'm a black man on Death Row who did nothing more than put himself in a position for the police to get their hands on him and make him into an arrest. I was asked a long time ago, “Why was I framed by the police?” At that time, because I was so uneducated, and miseducated, I couldn't answer that question. But then it dawned on me one day: they framed me because I was frameable. Just like they shoot unarmed black women in the street because they're shootable. And what does that mean, it means that they, the authorities, can do whatever they want to do, and nobody's going to stop them. Nobody's gonna stand in their way. Nobody's gonna believe us, they're gonna believe them. This is our reality in America today. It's always been like that.

So again I ask you, what are you gonna do? Are you gonna put up or are you gonna shut up? I'm putting up. I'm fighting for my life like there ain't no tomorrow. So, I thank you. I'm in solidarity with you. The struggle goes on. It goes on with or without you. I hope it's with you.