After a sustained campaign by anti-death penalty activists, Californian death-row prisoner Kevin Cooper was granted a stay of execution on February 9 — less than eight hours before his murder was scheduled to happen.
The 11th hour decision was made by a federal appeals court, and upheld a few hours later by the Republican-dominated US Supreme Court. The appeals court demanded the testing of evidence that Cooper's lawyers say will acquit him of his conviction for the murder of four people in 1983.
California officials were ready to see Cooper dead, rather than allow an investigation that could expose a 20-year-old frame-up by racist police and fanatical prosecutors. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't even bother to hold a hearing before turning down Cooper's clemency petition — something that hasn't happened since capital punishment was reinstated in the 1970s, say opponents of the death penalty.
For years, one court after another has ignored the gaping holes in the case. Prosecutors had blocked DNA testing of blond hair found clutched in one of the victim's hands—hair that could not have belonged to African-American Cooper.
In 2002, after years of appeals, Cooper finally won his request to have DNA testing done on a blood-covered T-shirt, which prosecutors claimed was his. But before the tests were performed, the T-shirt was removed from a police locker by a prosecution criminologist—along with vials of Cooper's blood and saliva. Unsurprisingly, the subsequent DNA results implicated Cooper.
Importantly, the appeals court ruled that the T-shirt be tested for preservatives, which would indicate DNA tampering, and that the blond hairs also be tested.
Reverend Jesse Jackson is one of many who attribute the decision to the strident campaign run by activists. "A message has gone out", he told protesters outside the prison, "that people who are not judges and who are not attorneys can get involved in issues like the death penalty. We can send a message that says we cannot tolerate injustice. We want real justice for Kevin Cooper."
Activists turned up the heat when Cooper's death warrant was signed on December 10. After a meeting of anti-death penalty and left-wing groups, a decision was made to run as public a campaign as possible around the Cooper case.
According to Campaign to End the Death Penalty's Marlene Martin, the campaign included "a signature ad, press conferences featuring Jesse Jackson and Rubin Hurricane Carter and meetings with Danny Glover and Angela Davis. A "live from death row" event allowed 200 people to hear Kevin's voice."
February 3 was a "day of action" for Cooper, with protests throughout California and across the US.
The Supreme Court news was relayed on the night to a crowd of some 300 protesters, as they marched to San Quentin prison, turning the protests into a celebration. "The things that happened tonight make me want to fight forever", said one of the marchers, Shannon Anderson, who joined the fight to save Kevin in recent weeks.
From Green Left Weekly, February 18, 2004.
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