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Protesters against the scheduled execution of Kevin Cooper in San Francisco, Ca., Feb. 3, 2004.
Life Inside

What It’s Like to Almost Get Executed

San Quentin inmate Kevin Cooper on watching the minutes tick away on his life.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

I was supposed to be executed one minute after midnight on February 10, 2004.

In the lead up to that day, I was moved to a new cell where prison guards could check in on me every hour to “make sure I was all right.” The prison also started sending a psychiatrist — it was clear that they wanted to make sure I was not going to commit suicide.

This went on for a few days, and then things slowly started to get more intense. I was awakened in the middle of the night, handcuffed, taken out of the cell, and placed against a wall. One of the guards started taking photos of me and said that these were the last images the world would see of me.

One day I was taken to the Lieutenant’s office, where she and a prison doctor were waiting. The Lieutenant told me to pull the sleeve of one of my arms up so that they could see my veins. I initially resisted, so the Lieutenant left and returned with a tourniquet in her hand. She tied it around my arm, and all my veins came to the surface. Then she and the doctor went about their task of documenting the good veins in my right arm. She did the same to my left.

About a week after that, I was taken to see another doctor for a check-up. The doctor took my blood pressure.

It was high.

Throughout my whole ordeal, I kept being asked what I wanted my last meal to be. Someone asked me if I wanted a Tombstone pizza.

My friends would come and spend time with me, as would attorneys. They had replaced my appeals lawyer, who damn near got me executed by not using the information we had to argue there’d been evidence-tampering. My lawyers kept coming to see me and updating me on what the were doing to save my life, but I honestly did not believe they could stop the state from putting me to death.

I stopped watching my TV or listening to my radio. Instead, I read my favorite book, possibly for the last time: A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.

Because I cut myself off from the media, I didn’t initially know about new witnesses who came forward on my behalf with claims potentially proving the state had withheld important evidence. I didn’t learn about the people who saw three white men — one with blood on his clothes — on the night of the murders, in a bar not far from the crime scene.

Then came February 9, my last day.

I had quite a few visitors, including Jesse Jackson, family, friends.

Around 11 a.m., Jeannie R. Sternberg, then an attorney from the Habeas Corpus Resource Center in San Francisco, came into the visiting room holding the stay of execution. She took the time to explain the whys and hows, and told me the state could appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

At 6 p.m., we were told visiting was over, and it was. I was taken to the rear of the visiting room and placed inside a cage and told to take off all my clothes. I was strip-searched, given another set of clothes and shoes, and placed in waist chains. Guards formed two lines — I was in the middle — and we marched out of the visiting room search area to the door of the execution waiting room.

That’s when I realized I’d been passing by this door twice a day for about a week and hadn’t even known it was the entrance to the death chamber.

When the door opened, we all went inside and I was told to place my back against the wall. The guards left the room single file. It was now a little past 6:30 p.m., and I looked at that large wall clock, knowing that with each passing minute, my life was ticking away. A number of executioners entered the room, one of whom walked right up to me, stood about six inches from my face, and asked me if I was going to cause trouble when they took off the handcuffs. I quietly told him, no, no trouble from me.

I was told to slowly take my clothes off and stand in the middle of the room. It was so cold I started to shiver.

He then started to examine my body, turning on his flashlight to look inside my mouth. He searched my hair, told me to lift my penis and scrotum, and searched them. I was told to lift my feet one at a time off the floor and wiggle my toes — first the right foot, then the left. I was told to spread my butt cheeks and bend over, which I did, and he shined his flashlight up my rectum.

Finally, after what seemed like eternity, the strip-search was over. I was given new clothes. I once again looked at that clock, and it was a few minutes after 7 p.m.

I was placed inside a cage to wait until my execution.

My lawyer, Jeannie Sternberg, called me on the prison phone and told me that the state did, in fact, appeal the stay, and as soon as she heard from the Supreme Court, she would call me and let me know.

While I waited, my pastor was allowed to come and be in the cage next to mine.

Around 8:17 p.m., out of nowhere, the telephone rang. The guard in charge of the phone handed it to me, and on the other end was Jeannie, telling me that the Supreme Court unanimously decided to refuse to lift the stay.

I gave the phone back to the guard and told the executioners that they were not going to do their jobs that night.

Kevin Cooper is a 58-year-old inmate at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California. He was convicted of a quadruple-murder in Chino Hills, Calif. in 1983, and has claimed innocence and petitioned for clemency ever since. According to his lawyer, Norman Hile at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, all of Cooper’s appeals have been denied, and his only remaining avenue is to file a petition for clemency with Governor Jerry Brown.