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Kevin Cooper Gives Last Interview, Defies 'Insane' Death Row Rituals
by PNS
Friday Feb 6th, 2004 4:17 PM
Kevin Cooper, who is to be executed on Feb. 10, says choosing to make a life for himself on death row was the hardest decision he ever made. He spoke to Dennis Bernstein, the executive producer of Flashpoints on KPFA/Pacifica Radio, and Leslie Kean a special Flashpoints correspondent.
Unless he is granted a last-minute stay of execution, Kevin Cooper will be killed by the state of California under cover of darkness early Tuesday morning, Feb. 10. Cooper, who has maintained his innocence throughout his 20-year ordeal, will be taken to San Quentin's death chamber and strapped to a gurney. A doctor, who has sworn an oath to save lives, will participate in the clinical poisoning of a black man who, by all accounts, has used his decades on death row to educate himself, growing from a poorly educated street kid to a well- informed, free-thinking human being.

On Feb. 2, we spoke to Cooper for the Flashpoints program on KPFA/Pacifica Radio. It will be his last public interview unless his date with death is averted. He spoke on a wide range of subjects -- his life on death row, his early history, the details of his case, and most compelling to us, his refusal to take part in the macabre process leading up to his killing.

A few weeks ago, the warden visited Cooper in his cell and invited him to choose the method of his death, as if this was some kind of gift presented by the system. He was handed the "Choice of Execution Method" form CDC 1801-A, which states that a death row prisoner "may choose either lethal gas or lethal injection as the method of execution." According to procedure, if the prisoner refuses to choose his or her own poison, "lethal injection will be the method of execution."

Cooper refused to participate in choosing to be killed, and would not sign. After some efforts at coaxing him, the warden left, saying she would return in ten days and try again. What possible reason would there be to subject a person to this bizarre ritual? Since lethal gas has been ruled unconstitutional, why is this choice even presented?

More recently, Cooper was given another execution perk: he could choose anything he wanted for his last meal. He told the authorities he didn't want a last meal. He has since been offered psychiatrists and priests by the very system that is planning to kill him. "For all these people to suddenly start caring about whether or not I'm alright, asking me, 'Are you alright? Do you want to talk to us?' I find this ludicrous. I find this insane. So I refuse to participate in these rituals," Cooper told us.

Most devastating of all was a pre-execution search for veins in his arms by medical staff, for which he refused to roll up his sleeves. This occurred just a few hours before our lengthy interview on Feb. 2. "So they pushed my sleeves up, and they checked my arms, and they found my veins," Cooper told the radio audience. "But then they said, 'Wait a minute, we have to make sure.' They put me in a holding cage, went and got some tourniquets. Then [the doctor] started massaging my arm and my hand, trying to see if he could find my veins. I looked at him and asked, 'Isn't this against the Hippocratic oath that you take as a doctor against killing people?'" He said, 'I'm not killing you. I'm just checking for your veins.'"

"And this is not just about individual doctors," Cooper quickly added: "This is about a system, the medical system itself, which allows doctors to participate. It's all hypocrisy."

Though Cooper has been confined to a tiny cell for nearly two decades, he has come a long way. As part of his on-going journey of "self-discovery," he reads steadily about politics and history, and the struggle of African Americans in this country. He has written numerous commentaries on world events and the death penalty, lending his unique perspective from behind bars.

"I decided to live, and not die just because I was sentenced to die," he wrote in one essay. "In hindsight this seems so easy, but in fact the decision to live and make a life for myself in this living hell was the hardest decision I ever had to make in my life."

Cooper's quest for social justice clearly transcends his own plight. He is inspired that many have taken up his case, and that his cause has become the driving force for many who believe, like he does, that the criminal justice system does not provide justice for those who cannot afford to pay for it, and that in all cases the death penalty is dead wrong.

"This is the knowledge that I have as I face my death," Cooper writes, "this is my death, but this is not my execution. They will take my body, but I believe that I've left enough work behind that people will keep on fighting for me, even after I'm dead. 'Cause we're going to get the truth out, one way or another."
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