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News + PoliticsCrimeDeath Row inmate who may be exonerated talks about his story

Death Row inmate who may be exonerated talks about his story

Kevin Cooper was three hours away from execution. Now he may be freed. He talks about racism, criminal justice, and his nearly 30-year fight to prove his innocence.


Gov. Gavin Newsom has ordered an independent investigation into the death-row case of Kevin Cooper.

From day one, Cooper has steadfastly asserted his innocence in the 1983 quadruple murder he was sentenced to death for. He was convicted in 1985 of the murders of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica Ryen and 11-year-old neighbor, Chris Hughes. Joshua Ryen, then 8 years old, was the only survivor of the crime and told investigators that it was three white men who carried out the brutal murders. Despite Ryen’s eyewitness account, and other compelling evidence, Cooper, a Black man, was convicted and sentenced to be murdered by the state of California.

Newsom’s May 28, 2021, executive order designated the high-profile law firm of Morrison and Foerster as special counsel to the California Board of Parole Hearings and instructed the firm to conduct a full review of the trial and appellate records in Cooper’s case and of the facts underlying the conviction. Newsom’s order directs Morrison and Foerster to investigate, report and make recommendations concerning Cooper’s application for clemency based on his claims of innocence. The investigation will also include an evaluation of recently conducted DNA tests.

Kevin Cooper was almost executed — and may now be exonerated.

On Feb. 10, 2004, Cooper was a little more than three hours from the forced end of his life on this planet. Cooper, a large man, was stuffed into a tiny jail cell, socked away a few steps from San Questin’s infamous death chamber. As an act of final resistance, Cooper had already refused his last meal. He watched his life tick away by the second, following the second hand of the large industrial clock on the wall across from his death cell. The state of California used to murder people a minute after midnight on the scheduled day of execution.

I had interviewed Cooper for the Flashpoints Show–which I host for Pacifica Radio — in the days leading up to his scheduled death by lethal injection. A producer on the show, Leslie Kean, had done some of the research that helped to cast doubt on the key facts that had led to Cooper’s original murder conviction. Based on these last-minute revelations regarding Cooper’s case, Cooper became one of a very few in an exclusive club of prisoners who escaped being murdered by the state once they have been brought to the virtual doors of death.

Now, it’s possible he will walk out of prison a free man. I caught up with Cooper recently to talk about Newsom’s decision.

KEVIN COOPER: First and foremost, thank you for covering this case for over 17 years. You’re part of the reason why a lot of this new evidence and old evidence was exposed and we got this innocence investigation. So, I very much appreciate it and I thank you for it.


KEVIN COOPER: When I found out that I had got the innocence investigation I was very happy. This is the first time in the history in the State of California, death penalty case, that any Death Row inmate has ever received an innocence investigation into their claims of innocence. And going forward I like to think that we will prevail.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: Wow. Now let’s talk a little bit about the atmospheric pressure that led to your conviction which you have claimed was false from the very get-go. Every shape, every way, every angle you have stood your ground on this. But in the opening we talked about it was lots of different people saw three white people. You’re a Black man. Talk about the atmospheric pressure. What happened there?

KEVIN COOPER: I can’t speak to that, Dennis. All I know is I’ve been on Death Row for over 36, going on 37 years. And this criminal justice system is like – how can I say it? If chattel slavery was called a peculiar institution, then this modern-day criminal justice system must be called the very peculiar institution because it’s no rhyme or reason those people do what they want to do. They overlooked evidence, they’ll destroy evidence, do whatever they wanted to do to make the person fit the case, not the case fit the person. And that’s what happened to me.

I mean little Joshua Ryen, when he saw my face on TV when he was in the hospital, he told the police in the hospital room that, “That man, he’s not the one who did it.” But they still didn’t pay no attention. Now on the other hand, if he had said, yeah, that is the man who did do it, then they would have used that. So, you know, these people do what they want to do.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: Kevin, talk a little bit more about how you survived in prison. What is it that got you through? Is it the belief in your own innocence or what is it that got you going 36 years?

KEVIN COOPER: It’s not – it isn’t just one thing. I mean at different times it’s different things. My innocence, first and foremost, but also my will to survive and not to give up, you know, and a lot of help from people who supported me. I mean, you know, they say as long as there’s life, there’s hope. But in my case, and I believe in many other cases, that’s not true because I see a lot of people where life, and they had no hope, so they’re walking around like the walking dead or, you know, or zombies or something. But I have hope, and because I have hope I have life.

And I got that hope not just from me or from my inner strength, inner being, but I got it from people like you and people like Leslie Kane or, you know, people who are helping me right now. You know, and my attorneys give me hope. My ancestors give me hope because I know a lot of them went through far worse than I’m going through now with nothing. And many of them survived. So, I have hope.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: Also, you managed to shape and make that hope into beautiful things. You’ve become a creator behind bars, art, poetry, creation, that’s come to play a key role in your life, wouldn’t you say?

KEVIN COOPER: Yes, there’s – the place that I’m in is a very negative place and it thrives on negativity, it thrives on hatred. It thrives on ugliness. You know, this place brings out the worst in certain people. And there’s a lot of people who walk around here going I don’t give a damn, or I don’t give an F, you know, they just don’t care. But me, I decided to care. I decided to get involved in things that would be the complete opposite of this place.

So, if this place is ugly, I need to do something pretty, you know, artwork. You know, if this place is about death, then I need to do something to create life. Artwork, you know, and it was just that, you know, that saying that. “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at will change.” So, I changed this cage that I’m forced to live in against my will to a classroom and to an art studio and to all things positive. No negativity is in here. And that’s how I manage to survive. That’s what I do.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: Give us an in-depth description of the room you’re inside now and how you see it.

KEVIN COOPER: Oh man, this is a cage, this is a – you know, animals at the SPCA live in a better cage than what I live in or what other inmates in this place live in. We human beings are forced to live in a cage that is about 4-1/2 feet wide and 11 feet long. And two feet of that four and a half feet is taken up by the bed, you know, and at the other end, I’d say a foot and a half of that 11 feet is taken up by a shelf and a toilet and a sink. I mean so you have very small space to be creative and to live in, to survive in and to thrive in. But many of us do this because we understand that there is no other way for us to go but to make the best out of this bad situation.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: You’ve been in there for decades, but still you exist, and you not only exist; you transcend. What are you reading now?

KEVIN COOPER: Right now, I’m reading The Dead are Arising, The Life of Malcom X. It’s by Les Payne, and his daughter, Tamara Payne. Les, he died before he could finish his book, and his daughter, she finished it. But it is a good read. It covers everything in the life of Malcom X that the autobiography didn’t. And it straightens out a lot of misconceptions and it gives real names and things that Malcom tried to hide or because he was protecting certain people when he wrote the autobiography with Alex Haley. So, this is the truth about his life.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: What are you doing now to keep busy?

KEVIN COOPER: Well, I’m not – well right now I’m focused on getting out of here. I mean I haven’t painted in over a year because this hobby shop, prison hobby shop, was closed because of Coronavirus and this pandemic. So, they shut their hobby shop and there was no way I could mail out the paintings I already had done. I have about four of them here already wrapped up to get shipped out, but there’s nobody to do it, so I’ve been concentrating and focusing and working hard on getting out of here.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: Let’s talk a little bit about the context in which this comes. I’m wondering if you think – I mean the former Governor Jerry Brown essentially was not friendly to your case. In comes Gavin Newsom, takes a different look, but it’s in the context of a revolution in the streets of this country. It’s called Black Lives Matter. I’m wondering: There socked away in Death Row, San Quentin, do you still feel the heartbeat of Black Lives Matter? Do you think that had something to do with the decision of your case?

KEVIN COOPER: Of course. I mean it’s not just a racial reckoning that this country is going through right now. It’s also a truth reckoning because these people, this government, this system, are the biggest liars ever, you know, so they’re now having to deal with not just race and class and all these other isms that they refused to deal with before, but they also have to deal with the truth.

For example, the prosecutors in this case have always hidden behind that Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton with the help of Sen. Diane Feinstein and Rep. Newt Gingrich. Now this – this act, it procedurally bars the federal courts from hearing innocence claims from people like me, and in a way, it strips away Habeas Corpus, you know. So, they’ve been hiding behind that. So, every time I go into court and tell the truth, well they say, “Well, it’s procedurally barred, and we can’t do nothing.”

Well now this innocence investigation — which has happened because of Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, Breana Taylor, and all the other Black men and women who have been killed at the front end of America’s criminal justice system by the police, executed at the back end of this criminal justice system by volunteer prison guard executioners, now these things are come together to make it possible for a person like me who’s been fighting for close to 40 years to prove my innocence, that opportunity to do so. I honestly believe that the order to get this innocence investigation we already proved our case because this never happened before in the history of this state. We had to prove something to get this.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: I believe you are the only one, and it sort of happened after our earlier encounters with you with our co-producer then, Leslie Kane, who did some investigation, did some reporting, but I believe you’re the only one who walked into that Death Chamber and actually walked out.

KEVIN COOPER: At that point in time in the history of this state, yes, in 2004 I was. Since then, there has been a couple more, but yes, I was the first. You know, so there’s a lot of firsts in this case. The first time that 13 Ninth Circuit justices had agreed with a Death Row inmate, you know. Twelve dissented, another one wrote a concurrence that read like a dissent, and another one is speaking truth to power in a different way.

You know, and the first time the American Bar Association has ever agreed with a Death Row inmate, and in my case, and the first time that the InterAmerican Commission for Human Rights took a Death Row case was they dealt with my case and gave us a hearing and then ruled in our favor in that hearing. So, I mean there’s even more stuff than that. I mean all three California innocence projects have come together and support me in this case. That’s a first. And I mean so I can go on and on. But the bottom line is this: Because of Black Lives Matter and because of all this racial and truth and reckoning that’s going on in this country right now, the criminal justice system as we know it is about to change because people are finally taking a look at things they didn’t want to look at before, how rotten this system is, and believe me, it’s rotten to the core. It has to be. It comes down from chattel slavery and everything up under that.

DENNIS BERSTEIN: You have a deep knowledge of the system inside and out now. People talk about defunding the police. And you would see that as making sense in the context of it being an outgrowth of a slave catching system. The racism is still prevalent. So, I imagine you’ve been thinking about, perhaps, a new way to deal with the community and safety in the community. And what are your thoughts? Is there another way? Do we need a police force? What would you recommend?

KEVIN COOPER: Well, there has to be another way. There has to be a better way. When you send police into somebody’s neighborhood to somebody’s house, what you’re doing is you’re sending in people with guns. People with guns, they use their guns, or they use their mace, or they use their tasers or whatever they do, they use it to our detriment, right? Now there has to be a way for all that money that’s spent on police could be spent on different types of services for people, for people with mental health issues, for people that deal with domestic violence issues, for people who are just stressed out, you know, for all types of things.

The police would be the last people, these people with guns, these people who are trained how to be violent, these people who are trained how to kill. They should be the last people that you send into a domestic violence type thing or a mental health thing. But America is so gun crazy they’re going to do anything to keep guns in the hands of the police or anybody else. So, the best way to try to limit police and their contact with civilians is to take that money and use it elsewhere, get them out of schools, people with guns should not be in schools, whether they’re police or not, they should not be in schools.

So, I see a whole new different way, you know, what do I know, I’m up in this joint. But there has to be a better way, Dennis, because America has shown us that their way of violence throughout the history of this country is wrong.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: Did you find it an inspiration that who filmed the murder of George Floyd was given a special Pulitzer Prize? Did that mean something to you?

KEVIN COOPER: Yes, of course it does. I mean because she stood up. She stood up and stood there, a child. She stood up there and filmed that murder of that man by those people, and if it wasn’t for that they would have got away because as soon as it was over with the Minneapolis Police Department released a statement saying that it was a medical history that killed George Floyd, not the police.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: We recently saw a near insurrection, an overthrow of the United States Government by white people. Kevin, I’ve been dying to ask you this. What do you think would have happened if those were black people heading for the Capitol? Do you think 500 of them that have now been indicted would have been able to walk away?

KEVIN COOPER: A whole lot of them would have been dead. When that thing first started, you know. It would have been – the National Guard and everybody else, when they took so long to get there, you know, those people, if they were Black, would have been slaughtered. But I also want to say about our little sister who filmed that  George Floyd story. Not only should she be awarded, she should be rewarded because they put out – they give away all types of scholarships and all types of other things, money, to people for far less – who have far less courage than she did, you know.

She needs to be rewarded in some type of way, not just from somebody like the Pulitzer Prize people, but from her own people because that could have been any of us. That could have been any one of them that was out there that day. That could have been her because this – these police, they don’t give a damn about doing what they did to George Floyd to a woman or to a kid, to a child, because they’re killing black skin, black people, black bodies. They don’t give a damn about how old they are or who they are or what their sex is.

So, you know, as I fight for my life here, I’m not just fighting for me. I’m fighting against the death penalty here in the State of California so nobody else will go through what I and others have been through, this tortuous game of death that these people are playing with our lives, you know. It’s important that we end this thing and end it now. It should have been ended. It should have been over with a long time ago.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: The people are going to need you, Kevin, because I’m not sure it’s on the way out. If you’re following the discussion among the things being discussed now, and you know, this is sort of coming out of the Jewish community, they’re very upset that, what is it, Texas or Arizona that’s considering bringing back the gas chamber? Now I understand the imagery, and we did see Nazis in Washington, D.C. who weren’t arrested who were wearing t-shirts, but now they’ve been arrested I guess, six million weren’t enough or whatever it was, there really is a drive to bring back the gas chamber, the firing squad. What do you think is driving that?

KEVIN COOPER: But that’s only a certain bunch. That’s only in certain places. It’s mostly Republicans in these southern states. But understand this, Dennis, by lethal injection is the preferred method in this state. The gas chamber is an option. The inmate can choose the gas chamber here in California. It’s not taken off the books, but it has to be chosen by that inmate, that condemned inmate, as a way he want to be murdered by these people. So, you know, it’s everywhere, it’s not just somewhere else.

These people, because of the success that people had in drying up their drug supply, well they’re saying, okay, we don’t need drugs, we’ll go back to Old School way, we used to hang them, you know, that lynching stuff, or we used to use the firing squad, or we used to do this, and we used to do that. So, let’s go back and do that again. That’s like history repeating itself.

But the only thing I can say is that the number of people who are being sentenced to death or being actually executed is shrinking, even the State of Virginia, one of the most prolific death penalty states, gave up the death penalty. I mean that’s the home of the Confederacy, Virginia. So, you know, we do have a chance. And I want to be out there to help give us a better chance.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: You know, I interviewed the great and extraordinary defense attorney, William Kunstler, who really fought for the people, and he witnessed a number of gas chamber murders he sort of demonstrated what it looked like, what it felt like, what it sounded like. And it was an incredibly troubling moment in radio history, but people don’t have that experience. They don’t know about that, and they don’t have folks like Kunstler  around to – who will tell it like it is in that context. That’s why they need you, Kevin.

KEVIN COOPER: I’m committed cause this is personal, man. I came within three hours and 42 minutes. I mean right across from that cage I was in they had nothing but a toilet and a mattress in it.

On the wall right across from it was a clock, a big ass clock, and the clock seemed to get bigger as the minutes ticked by. It was one of them clocks, white face, black hands, black numbers, you know, and I had to watch it. That’s how I know how much time I had left before they was going to murder me, because I looked at that clock, and I couldn’t help –

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: Were there seconds on that clock? Did it have the second hand?

KEVIN COOPER: Yes, there were seconds on the clock, yes, a big black long, skinny second hand, and I watched it, and every time it moved my life was one second shorter. Those seconds turned into minutes. And then a half hour and then an hour, and my life was slowly draining out. You couldn’t help but watch it. That’s torture in and of itself. That’s how sick these people are. They tell you they’re going to kill you one minute after 12:00 and they put you in a cage facing a clock so you can watch your life going off that clock. This is part of the psychological torture that is civilized Americans, these volunteer prison guard executioners, that they do to us. No, man, we got to stop this stuff.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram


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