An Illinois man must first exhaust all his options in court before Indiana Gov. Mike Pence will consider a pardon for a robbery the man says he didn't commit, an attorney for the Republican vice presidential candidate said.
Pence general counsel Mark Ahearn told an attorney for Keith Cooper in a letter dated Tuesday that Cooper must first seek post-conviction relief in court before a pardon is considered.
Cooper, 49, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for a 1996 robbery in Elkhart in which a teenager was shot in the stomach. The Indiana Court of Appeals overturned his co-defendant's conviction in 2005, and Cooper was given the choice of being released with a felony record or facing a new trial before the same judge who had convicted him. He chose to be released. Cooper said he chose to go home to his wife and three children who at times were homeless during his incarceration.
"It crushed me a little bit," Cooper, a forklift operator, told the Chicago Tribune after reading the letter Tuesday. "I haven't given up hope. My hope is what keeps me strong, but I'm human, and it hurts."
In explaining the decision not to issue a pardon, Ahern wrote that it remains unclear whether Cooper could still go to court to have his name cleared and that "out of respect for the judicial process" Pence's office wouldn't consider the request yet.
"When Mr. Cooper made a deal to be released from prison he withdrew his pending post-conviction relief petition, but it is unclear from the official record whether this precludes Mr. Cooper from refiling a petition," Ahearn wrote.
Cooper's attorney, Elliot Slosar, has said his client was wrongly imprisoned and cited flawed police work and a trial attorney who mishandled key DNA evidence. Key witnesses have recanted.
"We're disappointed that Gov. Pence refused to use his executive power to provide justice to an innocent man," Slosar said.
Slosar said the pardon request has been pending for at least five years. He said Cooper had a pardon hearing before the Indiana Parole Board in 2014 and the board ruled unanimously to recommend a pardon.
Pence has pardoned three people, none claiming actual innocence, since he became governor in 2013, the Tribune reported. His predecessor, Republican Mitch Daniels, pardoned more than 60 people during his eight years in office.
"This doesn't make sense," Cooper said. "How can you pardon guilty people and here I'm innocent and you pass it forward? I just hope I'll still be alive (when pardoned) because I'm tired of walking around with the stigma of being a convicted felon."
Pence spokesman Matthew Lloyd pointed out the governor's decision was not final.