Incarceration Nation

Thank You, Gavin Newsom, From a Death Row Inmate

By Kevin Cooper

Many people believe that taking a human life is a primal exercise of real power, whether on a massive scale through war or the murder of one person by another in a single act of violence. Then there is a system of death that flows in this country’s bloodstream, from the cop who murders an unarmed innocent person to the prison executioner who murders a fellow citizen when his or her time is up.

But real power is not in taking a life, as many people mistakenly think; it is in saving a life. Anyone can take a life; the ease of doing so is proved every day by the number of homicides that occur. But saving or sparing a life, when there is tremendous pressure from powerful forces to not save that life, can be much more difficult.

There is a difference between genuine courage and power, and few politicians in this country and the state of California have shown they can muster both when faced with truly difficult decisions. Courage is having the mind to carry on despite danger, and the moral courage to speak out against injustice when no one else will.

Governor Gavin Newsom has shown that he has courage, both moral and otherwise, as well as real power, in calling for a moratorium on executions in California.

I am one of the 25 people on death row in this state who have no appeals left, and the political pressure that runs deep in the hearts of pro-death penalty politicians and their supporters to torture and murder people in my situation knows no bounds.

When Newsom showed the courage, the heart and the guts to do what no other governor in the state of California would do in calling for a moratorium, he did so because it is the right thing to do. Every organization that has studied the death penalty in this country, from the Death Penalty Information Center to the Equal Justice Initiative, to governors and legislators in other states and many others in between, have stated that America’s death penalty system is racially biased and unjust.

I have been listening to the responses to Newsom’s action by conservative Republican politicians and some of their supporters. Certain district attorneys have come out hard against what Newsom did, and some victims’ rights organizations have done the same. But none of them has cited any of the real statistics that have proved this system of capital punishment is rigged and flawed.

It’s rigged so non-rich people get the penalty of death, and flawed by its racism, homophobia, religious prejudice and lack of acknowledging mental illness. The system of capital punishment, in which the people with capital don’t get this type of punishment, comes from the slaveholding white supremacist civilization and mentality of yesteryear, in which Black people were not even considered to be fully human. Yet these pro-death penalty advocates act as if this is not the truth in present-day America and try to absolve themselves of violating humanity—as their slave master and white supremacist ancestors did.

They say, as former California Governor Jerry Brown once did, that there are no innocent people on death row. But as Newsom’s order stated: “Since 1973, 164 condemned prisoners nationwide, including five in California, have been freed from death row after they were found to have been wrongfully convicted.”

Proof of just one innocence should throw the whole system into question. A 2014 study said 4.1 percent of death row inmates across the country are innocent. I am confident DNA tests in my case ordered by Newsom—another action strongly opposed by death penalty advocates—will prove my innocence; but consider the others who do not have a team of top pro bono attorneys fighting for them.

In researching the history of the death penalty, the conclusion is inescapable: It is mostly the poor, mentally ill and people of color who are sentenced to death, and Black and Brown people, especially men, are sentenced disproportionally to white people. More than 60 percent of San Quentin’s death row inmates are people of color. Newsom points out that at least 18 of the 25 people executed in the U.S. in 2018 had significant evidence of mental illness, brain injury, developmental brain damage or an IQ in the intellectually disabled range, chronic serious childhood trauma, neglect and/or abuse.

Newsom now, if nothing else, has begun a conversation that should have taken place a very long time ago, which is the truth about capital punishment in the state of California and the rest of this country.

This will never be a free and open society as long as certain politicians and their supporters continue to ignore the truth about this country’s racist past and present. It is this tortured historical past that has made for this tortured present as it deals with who lives and who dies by the hands of the rich and powerful in this country.

As Newsom once again was sharing the truth about the death penalty, a scandal was breaking about wealthy parents who paid to get their children fraudulently admitted into prestigious, sought-after universities. Some of those parents reportedly paid $1 million or more.

On another side of this issue, there are rich people who can pay millions of dollars in legal fees and such to keep their children out of prison and especially off of death row. Poor people, for the most part, can’t get into any university, but can get into prison; they cannot get into Penn State, but they can get into the state pen. Rich people can get into damn near any university—but don’t make it to death row, even when they have been convicted of murder, which has happened in this country and state.

I thank Newsom for his moral courage and power to stand up and speak truth about this rotten-ass system of death when others, who have also known this truth and even acknowledged it, did not.

Hopefully, this is the beginning of the end of the death penalty in this progressive state of California, which has been in the company of Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and others that still execute people. Since 1978, California has spent $5 billion on a death penalty system that has executed 13 people. The billions of dollars spent on death can now be spent on life, funding healthcare, education, housing and the other necessities for all Californians.

History will prove Newsom is correct in what he has done, and that same history will not remember the mean-spirited pro-death penalty people who have no morals or moral courage. The only power they have is the power of fear and revenge. That, in my humble opinion, is not real power.

Truthdig, March 25, 2019