Kevin Cooper, an appeal for freedom and prison abolition

Kevin Cooper during his preliminary hearing in November 1983.

To very little fanfare, in December 2018, new DNA testing was ordered for California death row inmate Kevin Cooper, a Black man accused of killing four white people.  

For over 30 years, Cooper has been on California’s death row for the gruesome Chino Hills murders in 1983. Chino Hills is a semi-rural town east of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley.  Cooper has maintained his innocence in the crime, investigative journalists and legal experts have insisted Cooper is the victim of a framing by law enforcement and deadly crime partners, and radical anti-prison activists have been the only ones to mobilize in defense of Cooper.  

Cooper’s case is of crucial importance to the fight against mass incarceration. Cooper’s case highlights the racism in prosecution, not only in law enforcement.

The forensic lab and San Bernardino County sheriff’s department, which in subsequent years to the Cooper case had been proven to lie and plant evidence at the scene of crimes, settled upon Cooper as their main suspect in the crime. Evidence and personal accounts suggest that at least three white-presenting men were responsible for the killings.  With what the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof has described as a clear cover-up, why hasn’t Cooper’s case been the cause célèbre it deserves to be?

Liberal prison reform versus radical prison abolition

In recent years, prison reform activities have gained increased celebrity within liberal and moderate conservative aspects of U.S. society. With rivaling superstar couples of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West and Jay-Z and Beyoncé in opposite corners, some cases that radical activists have been advocating for quite some time have gained much notoriety.  

Jay-Z produced a six-part series on the late Kalief Browder and has been a part of a popular campaign to bail out people awaiting trial. Jay-Z and Beyoncé quietly spent millions of dollars to help the defense of the formerly incarcerated rapper Meek Mills — and they have now united with Meek Mills and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft to push for further prison reform legislation.  As well, Kardashian and West have appealed to Donald Trump and social media for prison reform and clemency.

In the summer of 2018, Alice Marie Johnson was released from federal custody following appeals from Kardashian and West. In late December 2018, President Trump signed the First Step Act, passed by the Senate by a margin of 87 to 12. Van Jones described the bill as a “Christmas Miracle.”  On Jan. 7 of this year, incarcerated former sex worker Cyntoia Brown had her sentence of 51 years to life commuted to 15 years. For over a decade, Cyntoia’s case had been relegated to the ranks of anti-prison activists and former sex workers. Yet, again, her commutation has been attributed to the work of Kim Kardashian and others.

It must be made explicitly clear that all of the people released do not only deserve to be released, they should have never been incarcerated in the first place. Radicals are critical of liberal prison reformism, especially these partnerships of elected officials and entertainers, because of their frequent use of what might be called “the question of innocence.”  

As Mills College professor Priya Kandaswamy has noted: From the vantage point of people who have historically been perceived as guilty, innocence is not a viable ground on which to build political claims. These experiences highlight the often deadly consequences of making rights contingent on innocence and expose the fact that innocence and guilt are socially constructed categories that hinge upon one’s relationship to the state, not on one’s own character or actions.”  

Popular concern over mass incarceration has too often focused its gaze on the innocence and even value of the incarcerated person.  Liberal prison reformers forego criticism of the racial capitalist incarceration regime which, in fact, makes the question of innocence or guilt quite irrelevant.  

In short, to suggest that the only reason someone deserves to be released is because they are innocent or “don’t belong there” reasons to suggest that there are, in fact, people who do belong in prison.  This contradiction explains the lenient sentences from the “Affluenza” case to Brock Peters, even in the face of public outcry. It also explains why Kevin Cooper was charged with these murders and why popular concern has overlooked Cooper and countless other incarcerated people.

Free ‘em all!

Amongst radical anti-prison activists, the terms “Free ‘em all” and “All prisoners are political prisoners” are popular sayings.  In San Diego, this is why members of the Committee Against Police Brutality and the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee simultaneously struggle for the release of prominent political prisoners like Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal as well as advocating for the release of gang members and addicts rounded up in unjust federal drug indictments.  

For radical activists, mass incarceration has been proven to not be about right or wrong. It is about the warehousing of surplus populations of people of color and the poor that society has valued disposable. As Kristoff notes, Cooper had recently escaped from the minimum security yard at the California Institute for Men in Chino “and deputies who examined his file and mugshot saw a black man with a huge Afro who fit their narrative of an incorrigible criminal. He had a long arrest record dating back to when he was 7 years old.”  Cooper was arrested because he fit the dominant notion of a criminal and not because he committed the crime. Investigators singled in on Cooper and then made the evidence fit.

Prosecutors alleged that Cooper killed Douglas and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter Jessica and a family friend, 11-year-old Christopher Hughes, because he wanted to steal their station wagon.  Meanwhile, the companion of the man that many other people assume to be one of the actual killers, all white presenting, came forward with evidence that it was likely her partner — whose name this article has chosen to withhold.  

The man’s companion identified a bloody t-shirt and missing hatchet as likely to be his property. She also presented bloody coveralls as evidence. Blonde and brown hairs were even found in the hands of the victims. The investigators discarded the coveralls and, advocates suggest, began to falsify evidence to imply that Cooper committed the murders.   Former FBI agent and deputy head of the bureau’s Los Angeles office has frankly admitted that: “The evidence was planted, he was framed, the cops lied on the stand.”

New testing ordered

Previously, California Gov. Jerry Brown and Kamala Harris, in her role as state attorney general, refused to allow new DNA testing in the case.  Yet, following Kristof’s exposé in the New York Times, the now-Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Dianne Feinstein reversed their positions and advocated for the advanced DNA testing that Brown ordered, as previously noted.  

Radical activists who have consistently demanded the release of Cooper anxiously await the results of the new testing.  Prison abolitionists and anti-police terror organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area continue to hold rallies outside the San Quentin State Prison, where Cooper is held captive.  

For activists, this account of misjustice evinces the need for a complete overturning of the U.S. incarceration industry, including an end to the death penalty. Cooper’s freedom does not hinge on the exceptional nature of his case.  

There is strong evidence that at least 15 of the nearly 1,500 prisoners executed since the reinstitution of the death penalty in 1976 have been innocent, and many others put to death before 1976 have been posthumously pardoned. In fact, the 2011 execution of Troy Davis was a crucial catalyst of the contemporary Movement for Black Lives.  Still, activists understand that this heavy lifting towards prison abolition must be led first and foremost by the people — not entertainers and not politicians.