Death row inmates tell their stories through art

There are currently 746 inmates awaiting execution in California. We don’t often hear from those inmates, let alone see artwork they make in prison. But organizers of a Los Angeles exhibition of art made by death row inmates from across the country say they hope to reveal the humanity of those people whose lives hang in the balance.

On July 16, 2014, U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney ruled that California’s death penalty violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, because it is arbitrary and plagued with delay. But that decision was overturned on Nov. 12, 2015 on technical grounds, which means executions could potentially move forward. The last execution in the state was in 2006.

Kevin Cooper, "Free Me!!" 2011, acrylic on canvas
Kevin Cooper, “Free Me!!” 2011, acrylic on canvas

Kevin Cooper has been on death row in San Quentin State Prison for 30 years. He’s on a short list of at least 17 death row inmates that have exhausted their appeals and would be the first to be put to death if executions resume in California. He spends much of his day in his cell.

“I live in a cage that is four and a half feet wide by eleven feet long,” Cooper said. “And everything that I do within this cage I do mostly to stay sane. But I have a TV, a typewriter, my art supplies and my books.”

There’s a tray slot in the door where guards pass him his meals or a telephone. In 1985, Cooper was convicted of murdering four people in the Chino Hills area of Southern California. His case is controversial. People have marched to have him executed while others have protested to demand his release. He’s always maintained his innocence. In 2004 he was scheduled to be executed. Less than four hours before he was set to receive a lethal injection, it was postponed to allow for more DNA testing, which still failed to exonerate him. Still, he’s become a figurehead in the movement to abolish the death penalty.

“I knew after I survived that stuff that my life wasn’t my own no more, that it belonged to this movement. And I’ve been involved in this movement for a very long time. And that is where I get my strength,” Cooper said.

Cooper is one of a couple dozen inmate artists represented in “Windows on Death Row,” an exhibition at the University of Southern California. His acrylic paintings draw connections between slavery and prison labor. One called “It’s a Generation Thing in America” shows three black men — a grandfather, father and son — all wearing prison uniforms. Another piece called “Free Me” shows a man cupping his hand to his mouth and shouting.

Kevin Cooper, "It’s a Generation Thing in America: Past! Present! Future?!" 2013, acrylic on canvas
Kevin Cooper, “It’s a Generation Thing in America: Past! Present! Future?!” 2013, acrylic on canvas

“Sometimes when you’re in a place like this and you tell people certain things it’s just like they don’t hear, you have to scream it,” Cooper said. “And sometimes when you scream they still don’t hear you.”

“Windows on Death Row” was organized by a Swiss couple: Patrick Chappatte, a political cartoonist for the International New York Times, and TV journalist and documentary filmmaker Anne Widmann. Chappatte says they wanted to reveal the humanity of the inmates.

“And that’s what is a bit unsettling, might be unsettling for some viewers, because death row is a place, is a forgotten place where we put, as a society we put people that are seen as monsters and we don’t pay attention to what’s going on there. And what you see through the art is actually, you see beauty, you see human emotions,” Chappatte said.

Anne Widmann, Sister Helen Prejean, and Patrick Chappatte at the opening event for "Windows on Death Row."
Anne Widmann, Sister Helen Prejean, and Patrick Chappatte at the opening event for “Windows on Death Row.” Photo by Melissa Karlin.

Over 70 framed drawings and paintings line the walls. Some of those include political cartoons submitted by Chappatte’s fellow cartoonists. All the pieces in the show are critical of capital punishment. Chappatte said he reached out to conservative cartoonists but they too were against it.

“One of the cartoonists says that, he’s describing in one of his cartoons that he was for death penalty, then changed his mind. Another of the conservative cartoonists told me, you know what, I’m pro-life all the way, so I’m anti-abortion and anti-death penalty,” Chappatte said.

The cartoonist who changed his mind about the death penalty is Jack Ohman, editorial cartoonist for the Sacramento Bee and president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.

“I don’t want to be executing somebody who — even if they had committed the crime — I don’t think that sends the right signal. As a society if you’re saying killing is wrong, killing is wrong. We shouldn’t be killing,” Ohmen said.

Widman says “Windows on Death Row” is not about taking sides between criminals and victims. She points out that the group “Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights” is one of the show’s sponsors. But she does want visitors to think about how race and class factor into how likely defendants are to be sentenced to death.

“I mean, look at this system. It’s broken. I mean, how come terrible murderers are not on death row, and how come some are? How come some people have money to hire great lawyers, and how come others don’t?,” Widman said. “It has nothing to do with empathy with criminals, you see what I mean?”

“Windows on Death Row” will travel to North Carolina and Ohio after it closes in Los Angeles on Dec. 18.