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Prosecutor faces discipline for press comments over ruling for killer

September 23, 2016

Johnson County Prosecutor Bradley Cooper faces possible professional sanctions for comments he made to the Indianapolis Star and the Associated Press after a judge ruled a man facing the death penalty wasn’t competent to be executed.

Cooper was a deputy prosecutor and among the first witnesses to see the body of 18-year-old Franklin College student Kelly Eckart in 1997 after her body was discovered in a ravine near Camp Atterbury in Brown County. She had been abducted, raped and murdered. Michael Overstreet was convicted of her rape and murder and sentenced to death in 2000.

After Overstreet failed to gain post-conviction relief that would spare him from lethal injection in 2013, the Indiana Supreme Court authorized a successive PCR petition on the claim that Overstreet was insane.

Justice Robert Rucker wrote for the court that a psychiatrist’s evaluation of Overstreet opined that he “does not have, and does not have the ability to produce, a rational understanding of why the State of Indiana plans to execute him.”

When Johnson Superior Judge Cynthia Emkes recused herself from the subsequent post-conviction proceeding because of health reasons, the case ultimately was assigned to a judge in St. Joseph County, about 165 miles away. In November 2014, St. Joseph Superior Judge Jane Woodward Miller granted Overstreet’s petition.

The Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission’s complaint against Cooper claims he committed professional misconduct for comments he made in the wake of Miller’s ruling. The complaint seeks appropriate sanctions against Cooper’s license to practice law.

According to the commission, Cooper told The Star:

“I was angry and suspicious when this case was sent to a distant judge who is not accountable to the Johnson County citizenry or a grieving mother who couldn’t even afford to drive up for the hearing. The idea that this convicted murdering monster is too sick to be executed is nothing short of outrageous and is an injustice to the victim, her mother, the jury and the hundreds of people who worked to convict this animal.”

The commission also cited this statement Cooper made to AP:

“Once this case got shipped to a distant judge who is not beholden to the voters and citizens of Johnson County, it didn’t surprise me that she didn’t want to create the headache for herself by keeping with this case … I think the idea that this rapist murderer is basically too sick to be executed is ridiculous.”

Eckart’s parents, Dale and Connie Sutton, told IL in 2011 they planned to continue showing up at Overstreet’s hearings until the death sentence was carried out.

Cooper is charged with violating Rule of Professional Conduct 8.2(a), which states, “A lawyer shall not make a statement that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge, adjudicatory officer or public legal officer, or of a candidate for election or appointment to judicial or legal office.”

Cooper, who’s represented by Indianapolis attorneys James Voyles and Jennifer Lukemeyer, acknowledged the comments in his response to the commission’s complaint, but he denied the comments were a violation of Rule 8.2(a).  

In his response to the complaint, Cooper said of his comment to The Star that “He emotionally responded to an inquiry from a reporter … and did so via text messaging.”

A month after Overstreet was ruled incompetent, Attorney General Greg Zoeller announced his office would not appeal after determining the decision comported with prior U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

Cooper’s disciplinary hearing is set for 1:30 p.m. Oct. 5. Like the post-conviction proceeding, it will take place far from where Overstreet was convicted. The hearing will be in Richmond, about 80 miles from the courthouse in Franklin. Hearing officer and Wayne Superior Court Judge Charles Todd Jr. will preside.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to say that Johnson Superior Judge Cynthia Emkes recused herself from the PCR proceedings due to health reasons.

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