Incarceration Nation

Sophie’s Choice 2012: Death Penalty vs. Life Without Parole

A Comment on California Proposition 34, the LWOP Initiative

By Chris Kinder

“As long as there is hope, there is life.” —Kevin Cooper, “Hope” (see below.)

In California, a death-penalty nightmare looms. It’s more than just the decision on which chemical to use to kill the convicts, which is coming soon. That’s bad enough, but…

Shall we vote for death, or shall we vote for life in state prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP)? Sounds easy, right? Life is better than death. With life, there’s hope, right? Think again.

SAFE-CA, Prop 34, the “anti-death penalty” initiative on the California ballot this November, has it figured a bit differently. Yes, it’s against the death penalty …well, sort of. What it’s for is a better question. It’s for a more efficient death-penalty, one in which inmates get no special appeals, and the state gets to lock them up—and throw away the key—in a maximum security prison. Many death row inmates consider this to be death by another name. If there’s not hope, what is there? Certainly not a life worth living.

It’s Sophie’s choice all over again. How does one pick one child to kill in order to save the other one? The Nazis win either way. Same with SAFE-CA. This isn’t fascism, yet; it’s just the prelude. But it’s bloody vicious.

Under SAFE-CA, Prop 34 (I call it the LWOP initiative), the ruling class gets to solve a problem. The death penalty is not that efficient, you see. It costs too much, it doesn’t get all them criminals, it takes too long, and it’s too controversial. Under the LWOP initiative, voters are given a choice: instead of frying ‘em to death, let them rot to death, and use the money we save to frame-up more… Black and Brown people.

SAFE-CA perpetuates and strengthens the racist and unjust system which exists today. It does nothing to correct the injustices in the system. The injustices in the system have been built in since slavery, and the new Jim Crow today is still used to keep the working people divided, just as it always has been.

SAFE-CA is clear about its aims: save the money the state uses on mandatory appeals for death-penalty convicts, and put it toward more police prosecutions of unsolved cases. There’s nothing in the initiative about racism in the system, or why Black death-row convicts outnumber whites way out of proportion to population… or why prosecution of black on white crimes way outnumber white on Black. Nor does it address why cops routinely get away with murdering people of color in the streets, or why cops and courts systematically frame up who they want to get without regard to the truth.

And as for LWOP? The idea of SAFE-CA is to make the “crime” problem go away. More prosecutions, and less appeals, is the formula here. In Illinois, many death row inmates were exonerated. Under the SAFE-CA LWOP plan, you’ll never hear about them. Appeals will be cut off, and innocent people will have less chance for vindication than they do now.

Furthermore, SAFE-CA, while it claims to offer a choice of LWOP or a 25-to-life sentence, expands “special circumstances” to the extent that practically no murder would be excluded. Virtually any first-degree murder convict would be given LWOP, without the mandatory appeals which he or she would have had under the death penalty. So, we’re talking life in a room smaller than your bathroom, with no window and no hope of ever getting out, even though you’re innocent. Life? Or death by another name?

Below is one comment by an innocent death row prisoner, who has exhausted his appeals, and faces execution for a crime he couldn’t have committed, that is, as soon as the powers that be decide on how to kill him. Kevin Cooper was a black prison escapee in a white racist police jurisdiction at just the wrong time. One person could not have committed the brutal multiple murder for which he was convicted, but that didn’t matter. He was black, he was in the vicinity, and he had escaped from (a low-security) prison. That was enough.

The LWOP initiative does nothing to address the injustices of the system. The system itself needs to be overturned.


By Kevin Cooper

There’s a cliche out there where you are that says, “As long as there’s life, there’s hope.” Back here where I am, behind these walls, it’s in reverse: “As long as there’s hope, there’s life.”

When the people who brought together the SAFE California Act decided that they would take our lives and put it on the ballot for life without the possibility of parole, what they in fact have done is told us that if we get life without parole, that we will have no hope of ever getting out of here.

And if we have no hope, then we have no life.

Here on death row, as sick as this sounds, many of us have life, because we’ve got hope. I don’t know of any other way to say it, but as long as there is hope, there is life.

In struggle from death row at San Quentin Prison,

This is Kevin Cooper.

Prison Radio, August 10, 2012

Kevin Cooper C-65304 4-EB-82

San Quentin State Prison

San Quentin, CA 94974