Attorneys for a wrongfully convicted man who spent over a decade in a maximum security prison for a crime he didn’t commit filed a post-conviction petition in Elkhart County Circuit Court on Oct. 3, 2016 after Governor Mike Pence refused to grant a pardon despite the unanimous recommendation of the state’s Pardon & Parole Board.
Keith Cooper, 46, with no prior criminal record, was wrongfully convicted of a 1996 armed robbery and attempted murder in Elkhart. At the time of his arrest, Cooper was married with three young children and employed at two jobs. While wrongfully incarcerated, his young family was forced to sell all of their possessions, move into shelters, and eventually become homeless.
Keith Cooper’s former prosecutor wrote Pence a letter urging the Governor to pardon Cooper, as did the Republican State Representative for the district in which the murder occurred. As Michael A. Christofeno, the former prosecutor wrote,
“Justice demands that Mr. Cooper be pardoned. As an attorney I certainly understand Mr. Cooper’s procedural decision which allowed him to be released from prison but did not remove his conviction. Justice however should not be circumvented under this set of circumstances on procedural grounds. We cannot undo the wrongful imprisonment of Mr. Cooper, but we can undo his wrongful conviction with a pardon.”
On September 20, 2016, Mark Ahearn, General Counsel for Governor Pence, sent correspondence to Cooper’s legal team stating that Governor Pence would not consider Cooper’s request for a pardon any further until Cooper went to court again.
Governor Pence’s first public statement regarding Cooper’s pardon petition occurred five years after the petition was filed and two years after the Indiana Pardon and Parole unanimously recommended that Governor Pence grant Cooper a pardon based upon actual innocence. More significantly, Gov. Pence’s response was sent the day after Cooper’s case was featured once again on the front page of the Indianapolis Star.
Cooper’s hearing was held before the Indiana Pardon and Parole Board in February 2014. The victims, Canell and Kershner, testified on behalf of Cooper at that hearing. As a result of that hearing, the Indiana Pardon and Parole Board made a unanimous recommendation that Governor Pence grant Cooper’s pardon based upon actual innocence. Shortly thereafter, the trial prosecutor who wrongfully convicted Cooper sent correspondence to Governor Pence urging him to grant the pardon. State Republican Representative David Ober also sent correspondence to Governor Pence requesting a pardon on Cooper’s behalf. Even Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate John Gregg has committed to issuing a pardon to Cooper should he be elected. In spite of all that, after two years, Governor Pence has failed to act on Cooper’s pardon petition.
“The lack of courage displayed by Governor Pence is shocking. Governor Pence has an opportunity to provide a measure of happiness and closure to all the victims in this case – the victims of this tragic and senseless crime and Keith Cooper, a victim in his own right, who lost a decade of his life for a crime he did not commit,” said Elliot Slosar, Attorney for The Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School.
“Instead of using his executive power to change the life of an undisputedly innocent man, Governor Pence has decided to punt the issue to the next Governor of Indiana and inform Cooper that he needs to head back to the same court where he got wrongfully convicted in the first place.”
As a result of Governor Pence’s inaction, a post-conviction petition was filed in Elkhart County Circuit Court. The current Elkhart County Prosecutor, Curtis Hill, is currently running as the Republican nominee for Attorney General in Indiana. Hill has publicly refused to give his position on Cooper’s pardon petition and it’s unknown whether he will fight the post-conviction petition filed today by Cooper’s legal team.
Cooper was wrongfully convicted of a 1996 armed robbery and attempted murder in Elkhart.
Even though DNA testing of crime scene evidence – a hat left by the shooter – cleared him as a suspect, Cooper was still wrongfully convicted. His wrongful conviction was based on false testimony by a jail-house snitch and erroneous witness identifications that were manipulated by Elkhart Detective Steve Rezutko, who had previously been demoted for engaging in a pattern of similar misconduct. As Rezutko’s former supervisor put in a sworn statement, the detective “often put together extremely suggestive line-ups in order to push the witness towards his preferred suspect instead of letting the witness make an independent decision.”
All the eyewitnesses against Cooper have since recanted their identifications describing how they were manipulated by Detective Rezutko into falsely implicating Cooper. Nona Canell, a victim and eyewitness, provided testimony in front of the Indiana Parole Board in support of Cooper’s pardon petition. In that hearing, Canell told the Pardon and Parole Board, “If you want me to be happy, please give Keith Cooper his name back.” Notably, Michael Kershner, the crime victim who was shot back in 1996, also staunchly supported Cooper’
More sophisticated DNA testing conducted in 2002, five years after Cooper’s conviction, not only cleared Cooper of the crime, but pointed to a serial offender, Johlanis Cortez Ervin, who is now imprisoned in Michigan for a 2002 murder. Tragically, if Elkhart police had properly investigated the 1996 armed robbery and attempted murder of Kershner, Cooper’s life would not have been ruined and Ervin might have been prevented from harming others as well.
For now Cooper is like any other felon––he has a record and must check the felony conviction box when he applies for a job. To add insult to injury Cooper will never receive compensation for being wrongfully convicted because Indiana has no law to provide compensation for the wrongfully convicted or incarcerated. As long as he has a conviction on his record, he is unable to sue the state.