Prison Without Walls

Paula Priamos has written for, among others, the New York Times Magazine.

I was 12 years old when Kevin Cooper escaped from the California Institution for Men less than three miles from our home. That it was late and a school night didn't matter. At the time, my mother was six months pregnant and I helped her drag our royal-sized dining room chairs in front of the sliders, blocking the glass. My father, a big Greek, stood outside in his T-shirt and boxers, barefoot, yet armed with a hunting rifle. He checked the front and back doors, and inspected the garage to make sure it held nothing more than his diesel Mercedes and our Schwinn bicycles.

On the loose for less than 72 hours, Cooper already was suspected of bludgeoning a family in the hills. The carnage, the bodies, the blood were all too grisly for the local TV stations to air. We only heard the details, which somehow made them worse. Cooper had used a knife and hatchet. These were hands-on murders, the personal kind, though Cooper was a stranger to this family.

We lived in a ranch-style home surrounded by oleander bushes, perfect for hiding.

My mother parted the curtains.

"He could be watching us right now," she said. At age 40, her pregnancy was high-risk in more ways than one. An accident, she and my father said, but even then I knew that having another child was a last-ditch effort at keeping our family together. It was my father's idea to move us from L.A. to Chino, near the prison. He moved his law practice too. A change was supposed to do us good.

"An alarm should've sounded," my father said, coming back into the house. "It's supposed to go off every 15 minutes when someone's escaped."

My mother laughed at this, at him, and placed a protective hand over the hard mound of her belly.

"Who's supposed to hear it? Other prisoners?"

On that first night I slept between my parents. My father snored, and even Kleenex crammed in my ears didn't muffle his sounds. Leaning against the bed was his .300 Savage, fully loaded. If I had reached over I could have touched the cool barrel.

My father was a generic lawyer, taking on everything from divorces to drug offenses. I doubted if he was a good shot, considering he only hunted on occasional trips to Wyoming or Montana with his clients, the business ones, the ones he courted, not the criminals he also represented. (Those he visited behind the safety of bulletproof glass.)

As I lay in bed, I thought of the boy, a few years younger than me, who the night before had lain awake in his parents' bedroom. Only his mom and dad weren't sleeping. They were dead. His sister and a neighbor friend who was sleeping over had been murdered too. They were ambushed by a man with a hatchet in one hand, a knife in the other.

The boy was stabbed in the chest. He was stabbed in the head. Then his throat was slit. The only way he made it through the night, the 11 hours it took until help found him, was by plugging four fingers in the slash to stop the bleeding. The physical wounds eventually healed, but the boy would never be the same.

I slept in my parents' room until Cooper was caught two months later on a boat off Santa Barbara, more than 100 miles from where the murders took place. He had been working as a deckhand. He was accused of raping a woman who had been in a nearby boat. He was never charged with that rape. Instead he was charged and convicted two years later of four murders and one attempt. He was taken to San Quentin and placed on death row.

The average time it takes to execute a condemned killer in California is 18 years. For Cooper it has been more than 20. As a prisoner on death row, he enjoys four hours of fresh air every day with fellow inmates. He bides the rest of his time watching TV or listening to the radio. He has access to the prison's law library. Worse, he also has access to the media. In interviews he spreads the word that he was framed by the police, that he's innocent. Because he's known as the man who committed the most infamous mass murder in San Bernardino County, he's given more airtime than any victim's family could ever hope to get.

Cooper even has his own website.

During the time following his capture, my family changed. My brother was born. For a while a new child drew my parents together and then ultimately drove them apart. Later, my father passed. My brother recently wed and owns a home. I teach English at the state university in San Bernardino. I'm married and have an 11-year-old stepson close in age to the boy who survived that night.

On the evening of Feb. 9, 2004, I made sure to turn on the news. Cooper was set to be executed in less than four hours, at 12:01 a.m. I planned to stay up for it. My husband was on a business trip and my stepson had gone to bed early. The house was quiet, the front door bolted.

All week I had watched the end stages of Cooper's case play out on TV. I saw the Rev. Jesse Jackson head to the state capital to meet with Gov. Schwarzenegger's staff, pleading to spare Cooper's life. Movie actors Sean Penn and Denzel Washington also encouraged granting the condemned murderer clemency. I feared Schwarzenegger would cave to the pressures of politics and Hollywood. It was his first death penalty case in office. But he denied Cooper's request.

Finally, Kevin Cooper would be executed.

On TV I saw death penalty opponents gathering at the gates of San Quentin. The reporter at the scene said that Cooper was in a death-watch cell less than 12 feet from the execution chamber. He declined his last meal and was consulting with a spiritual advisor. It was rumored that a prison official had already been in his cell to check the veins in Cooper's arm for where they could best inject the lethal chemicals.

But before the crowd outside could light all their candles and hold a proper vigil, word came down from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals blocking Cooper's execution. In 2001, Cooper had been the first condemned inmate to have post-conviction DNA testing. The findings pointed to his guilt. Now it had been ruled that more testing could occur, postponing his execution indefinitely.

It was just the latest blow to his victims' families, who had traveled to Northern California in search of some emotional and psychological relief. I couldn't stand listening to the cheering. It struck me as perverse and cruel. I turned off the TV.

The results of these new DNA tests confirmed what the terrorized community of Chino had known all along, the same story that was told in the San Diego courtroom in which he was convicted--Cooper was the killer.

In class, when I teach about thesis statements, I write an example on the board: "The death penalty does not deter crime." It can be proven with statistics. Most criminals don't think about their own deaths until after they've been convicted.

The night after the execution date lapsed, I started wondering: Who would be the next Kevin Cooper? I performed the ritual I had done with my mother when we first heard that Cooper had escaped. I took those big dining room chairs I had inherited after my father's passing and I pushed them against the glass of the twin sliders.

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