From death row to Upper Hutt: a unique friendship

21 October 2015, 09:47 UTC | United States of America
Kate, her husband Ned and Kevin Cooper in a visiting cage at San Quentin Prison ©Private
By Lynn Dudenhöefer, Media Intern at Amnesty International NZ

Kevin Cooper was convicted of quadruple murder in 1985, and sentenced to death. Thirty years on he remains on death row in California's San Quentin Prison, where he maintains his innocence and continues to appeal his case.

Kate Orange, is a general practitioner and long-time Amnesty International supporter who lives in Upper Hutt.  

Their lives might be over 10,000 kilometers and worlds apart but that doesn’t stop them from maintaining a very unique friendship.

Kate first heard about Kevin's case in 1992 while living in California together with her husband and two sons. She started by writing him letters. Letters turned to visits. But never would she have imagined that, in 2015 and living back in New Zealand, she would still be writing letters and flying to California for regular visits.

Life on Death Row

Kevin has never stopped claiming his innocence and has had several appeals heard.

Having known Kevin for quite some time, Kate describes him as a strong and self-educated individual who likes to read a lot and inform himself about his case. Kate sends him photos as he is fascinated by keeping up with the outside world.

He has no desk or chair in his cell so he sits on a bucket, writing articles for his website on a typewriter that he has placed on his bed.

Despite numerous visits to the San Quentin Prison, the environment in which Kevin has to spend his days is something Kate says she’ll never get used to.

Over 700 men live in cage-like cells. Every now and then an inmate commits suicide and his body gets carried past.

Kate says it is hard to find the words to describe what she feels when she steps out of the prison: "They hand you back your passport and wish you 'a nice day’. I can't reply to that, the only thing I can do is nod. You step outside, the sun is shining. You feel incredibly emotional."

The stress of a life on hold

In February 2004, Kevin came only four hours short of being executed. This time has left a strong imprint on Kate's memory: "How do you describe that a friend of yours has been set a day and time to die? Kevin was put on suicide watch before the planned execution and had a medical person coming into his cell looking for a vein. He asked him 'how can you be medical and part of trying to kill me?' He replied: 'I am not trying to kill you, I am just looking for a vein."

Being a doctor herself, she cannot imagine how any medical person could take part in executions. "After the whole process, he had to deal with post-traumatic stress. He still has to live with the people who were supposed to kill him, sometimes he points them out to you."

"I don't believe that there is any humane way of giving someone a date and time to die. Being on death row is torture. I am totally against the death penalty whether you're guilty or not. It is unjust on so many different levels."

Kate Orange 

There is always hope

Both Kate and Kevin are hopeful that his death sentence can be commuted.

“There is always hope,” says Kate. “Kevin is very hopeful too but he says that he has to control his emotions. He has to manage that hope with the knowledge that he is part of a grinding machine.”

For New Zealanders who would like to support him, Kate recommends signing the petition on his case.

"People caring about his case and signing the petition mean a lot to Kevin. When he was about to be executed, he said that he wanted to have his ashes spread in New Zealand - because he had seen what it looks like here in all the pictures I sent him. Fortunately it never came to that. Now we talk about his ashes coming to New Zealand when he dies of old age as a free man."

Laughing a little when asked what it was like seeing him again during her last visit, Kate says: "We are both getting older. Usually it would take him some time to catch up with my New Zealand accent. But now he has no trouble anymore."  

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