“48 Hours” has the latest news on Kevin Cooper’s battle for his freedom in “The disturbing case of Kevin Cooper” airs Saturday, July 24 at 9 / 8c on CBS.
As the producer of “48 Hours”, I have met and interviewed convicted felons. I had never met a death row inmate – until I visited Kevin Cooper in San Quentin Prison.
Correspondent Erin Moriarty and I have completed the required documents for our visit. The California Department of Corrections has strict rules for visitors that include a dress code: flats, no jewelry, no skirts or dresses, no khaki, blue, or green clothing.
Erin and I decided to wear black – easy and simple.
I told a defense lawyer friend that I was going to visit death row inmate Kevin Cooper. He asked me to call him after the visit. I agreed.
It was a Thursday. May 9, 2019. Erin, Cooper’s attorney Norman Hile, and I arrived at San Quentin Jail at 7 a.m. We received badges and escorted to the visitors area. “48 Hours” has covered the Kevin Cooper case for over 20 years and this visit would be the first time our team has met him face to face.
When the door opened, I walked in, turned to my right and saw Kevin Cooper standing in a plexiglass room with bars. This is where we would visit Cooper. As we entered the room, a correctional officer removed his handcuffs and Cooper greeted us with a smile and a handshake.
There was no correctional officer in the room when we visited. We sat on plastic chairs with a small table between us. The furniture reminded me of an elementary school library from the late 1970s.
We talked for several hours. Cooper didn’t mince his words. He wanted Erin and I to understand why he had fought so hard to clear his name. In 1985, Cooper was convicted of the murders of four people in Chino Hills, California. I’d read the letters he’d sent Erin over the years, but seeing and hearing Cooper’s story in person was even more compelling. San Quentin Prison does not allow media to record inmate visits. I wish I could have recorded it to share with our viewers.
During our visit, I couldn’t help but admire the surroundings. It was austere and surreal. There were more guest rooms. The men were locked in small boxes with bars, and the overwhelming majority looked like Kevin Cooper: black and brown with salt and pepper hair. Books like “Just Mercy” and “The New Jim Crow” looking at the justice system and mass incarceration, but now I saw it up close: aging men of color behind bars.
I was not afraid. I didn’t have an internal debate about guilt or innocence. I didn’t know anything about these men or the circumstances of their crimes, yet I was starting to feel anxious. The visit was a throwback to reality as I am a journalist and I am African American.
Cooper, who still haslooked me in the eye and said, “I’ve been here for a long time. I replied, “More than half of your life.” I felt that Cooper knew I was taking into account the demographics of the prison population. We never talked about it. We didn’t need it.
At the end of our tour, we took some Polaroid photos and said goodbye. The correctional officer who removed the handcuffs handed them to Cooper.
Erin, lawyer Norm Hile and I have left San Quentin. Later that day I called a friend of mine who is a defense attorney and is also African American. He did not ask me for the details of the visit; he wanted to know if I was okay. I said I wasn’t sure and needed to wrap my brain around this. I am still processing.