That is the description of Senate Bill 463, a bipartisan piece of legislation that is the very definition of reasonable: Until the justice system is perfect, the state shouldn’t execute anybody.
For opponents of the death penalty in New Hampshire, it is just another chapter in a fight that has been raging many for years. Unless a great number of lawmakers suddenly find the political will to do the right thing, its passage is doubtful.
The trouble is that this is a society too accepting of collateral damage. Politicians talk of innocents killed by American weapons overseas as if the victims weren’t people at all but rather battlefield layers to be stripped away. And then they strip away the social safety net to punish the lazy and those who wish to exploit the system. If a few kids go to bed hungry or live on the streets, so be it. The same goes for death row. If one innocent person out of 25 guilty ones has to die, that is simply the price to be paid in this eye-for-an-eye world.
Anyone who has read Franz Kafka should feel a chill: In his world, you are that one out of 25. One day you are living your hardscrabble life and the next you are in a cell answering questions about a heinous crime of which you have no knowledge. But there’s enough evidence, and enough investigative incompetence, to suggest otherwise. Once those who hold your fate in their hands are convinced of your guilt, it’s just a matter of making the pieces fit together, even when they don’t.
But that’s not a Kafka novel; it’s Kevin Cooper’s story.
There is no riveting Netflix documentary about him, so don’t feel bad if the name doesn’t ring a bell. Cooper has been on death row in California since 1985, after he was found guilty of murdering Douglas and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, and 10-year-old Chris Hughes in Chino Hills. It was a brutal crime. According to a lengthy NBC News report last month, the victims received more than 144 wounds in four minutes. The one survivor, 8-year-old Josh Ryen, had his throat slit.
Although Josh would later point the finger at Cooper, a black man, he initially told police that three white or Latino men murdered his parents, according to NBC. Other witnesses spotted three white men driving away from the house in the family’s stolen station wagon. And a woman called police to say that on the night of the murders she found her husband’s coveralls splattered with blood. He was a white man and convicted murderer. The police never tested the blood on the coveralls, NBC reported, and instead discarded them in a dumpster.
As sometimes happens, the police had their man and any evidence that didn’t fit that narrative was discarded. So Cooper was sentenced to be executed on Feb. 10, 2004. The Ninth Circuit Court decided at the last minute to review his case, NBC reported, eventually ordering new proceedings after a number of problems were found with the original case. That led to five years of legal wrangling before the conviction was ultimately upheld in 2009. This past November, California lifted its moratorium on executions, and so the hands of time began moving faster for a potentially innocent man waiting for his final day on Earth.
Cooper is black. He is poor. He was on the run from police – and hiding out in a house near the crime scene – when the murders happened. If Cooper is indeed innocent, as several federal judges have suggested, it has all the makings of a Kafkaesque nightmare.
One of these years, New Hampshire lawmakers will wake up and realize that to take one innocent life is to take one too many, and so will abolish the death penalty.
Let this be the year.