I was supposed to be executed one minute after midnight on February 10, 2004.
In the lead up to that day, I was moved to a new cell where prison guards could check in on me every hour to “make sure I was all right.” The prison also started sending a psychiatrist — it was clear that they wanted to make sure I was not going to commit suicide.
This went on for a few days, and then things slowly started to get more intense. I was awakened in the middle of the night, handcuffed, taken out of the cell, and placed against a wall. One of the guards started taking photos of me and said that these were the last images the world would see of me.
One day I was taken to the Lieutenant’s office, where she and a prison doctor were waiting. The Lieutenant told me to pull the sleeve of one of my arms up so that they could see my veins. I initially resisted, so the Lieutenant left and returned with a tourniquet in her hand. She tied it around my arm, and all my veins came to the surface. Then she and the doctor went about their task of documenting the good veins in my right arm. She did the same to my left.
About a week after that, I was taken to see another doctor for a check-up. The doctor took my blood pressure.
It was high.
Throughout my whole ordeal, I kept being asked what I wanted my last meal to be. Someone asked me if I wanted a Tombstone pizza.
My friends would come and spend time with me, as would attorneys. They had replaced my appeals lawyer, who damn near got me executed by not using the information we had to argue there’d been evidence-tampering. My lawyers kept coming to see me and updating me on what the were doing to save my life, but I honestly did not believe they could stop the state from putting me to death.
I stopped watching my TV or listening to my radio. Instead, I read my favorite book, possibly for the last time: A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.
Because I cut myself off from the media, I didn’t initially know about new witnesses who came forward on my behalf with claims potentially proving the state had withheld important evidence. I didn’t learn about the people who saw three white men — one with blood on his clothes — on the night of the murders, in a bar not far from the crime scene.
Then came February 9, my last day.
I had quite a few visitors, including Jesse Jackson, family, friends.
Around 11 a.m., Jeannie R. Sternberg, then an attorney from the Habeas Corpus Resource Center in San Francisco, came into the visiting room holding the stay of execution. She took the time to explain the whys and hows, and told me the state could appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
At 6 p.m., we were told visiting was over, and it was. I was taken to the rear of the visiting room and placed inside a cage and told to take off all my clothes. I was strip-searched, given another set of clothes and shoes, and placed in waist chains. Guards formed two lines — I was in the middle — and we marched out of the visiting room search area to the door of the execution waiting room.
That’s when I realized I’d been passing by this door twice a day for about a week and hadn’t even known it was the entrance to the death chamber.
When the door opened, we all went inside and I was told to place my back against the wall. The guards left the room single file. It was now a little past 6:30 p.m., and I looked at that large wall clock, knowing that with each passing minute, my life was ticking away.
Kevin Cooper is currently housed at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. He maintains his innocence of a 1983 Chino Hills quadruple murder. Read his full essay at The Marshall Project.
This article was published in collaboration with Vice.com.