Johnson County judges, lawyers and the mother of a murdered teen traveled to a distant court Wednesday to come to the defense of their elected prosecutor.
A parade of character witnesses supported Bradley Cooper, who faces possible professional sanctions for press comments he made after a South Bend judge reduced a killer’s death sentence to life in prison without parole.
Cooper’s “reputation for truthfulness is unquestioned. It is stellar,” testified Johnson Superior Judge Lance D. Hamner. The former elected prosecutor, Hamner hired Cooper and said he was an exemplary deputy who often worked late into the evening on cases, rising quickly up the ranks. “I told him on several occasions he didn’t need to impress me; I was already impressed,” the judge said.
Witness after witness, including several criminal defense attorneys who try cases against Cooper, testified in glowing terms to his truthfulness and ethics during a half-day hearing 90 minutes from the courthouse in Franklin. Cooper’s discipline case was heard in the courtroom of hearing officer and Wayne Superior Judge Charles K. Todd in Richmond.
The Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission brought a formal complaint against Cooper for comments attributed to him in articles published by the Indianapolis Star and the Associated Press. Cooper affirmed the statement he made to The Star but said he didn’t recall a similar comment carried by AP. Both comments were in reaction to post-conviction relief granted to Michael Overstreet, who then-St. Joseph Superior Judge Jane Woodward Miller found in November 2014 was mentally incompetent to stand trial. Overstreet’s PCR case had been assigned to Miller after Johnson Superior Judge Cynthia Emkes recused herself for health reasons.
Cooper was deputy prosecutor but led the prosecution when Overstreet was convicted in 2000 of the rape and murder of 18-year-old Franklin College student Kelly Eckart. Her body was discovered in a ravine near Camp Atterbury in Brown County three years earlier.
After Miller found Overstreet incompetent to be executed, Cooper said a Star reporter who had followed the case over the years asked him for a statement. Cooper sent a text that read:
“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 argues the statements violate Rule of Professional Conduct 8.2(a), which states in part, “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.”
Cooper testified that after Miller filed a grievance against him with the commission, he sent her a sincere letter of apology. “It’s been something that I believe is proper and prudent,” Cooper said. “When you offend a judicial officer, you apologize for it. … It was not my intent to offend her.”
Over the years, Cooper stayed in contact with the victim’s mother, Connnie Sutton, who had vowed to attend every hearing concerning Overstreet until the jury’s punishment was carried out.
Commission staff attorney David E. Griffith Jr. called just one witness — Cooper — who he questioned for more than an hour about the statements, whether Cooper had read U.S. Supreme Court opinions forbidding the execution of murderers who are mentally retarded, and about his familiarity with Indiana Supreme Court decisions regarding Overstreet’s PCR petitions.
“I do believe I glanced at that order when it came in,” Cooper said of the state Supreme Court decision that permitted Overstreet to proceed with the PCR petition that Miller ultimately granted. Cooper said his professional involvement as prosecutor ended after Overstreet was convicted and sentenced.
Griffith pressed Cooper on the oath he took and whether he was required to keep up with court rulings and know the laws of the state, to which Cooper replied, “No.” He said he was unfamiliar with much of the Indiana Code that didn’t pertain to criminal law, for instance.
“Are you saying you’re just a figure-head?” Griffith asked. Cooper replied he wasn’t; that his oath required him to uphold the law, not to read them all.
Griffith later concluded his cross-examination of Cooper by asking if he knew the definition of “ridicule.” He asked Cooper whether a lawyer, and a prosecutor in particular, can publicly ridicule a judge. Cooper said as long as there isn’t a knowingly false statement, “I do not see a prohibition of that.”
Cooper’s defense attorneys, Jennifer Lukemeyer and Jim Voyles, sought to portray his comment to The Star as factual. Voyles dissected the comment and Cooper said he was indeed angry that the proceeding had been moved to a court more than 180 miles from the victim’s mother’s home. He felt this deprived Sutton and the community the right to attend and follow the proceedings.
“That case absolutely moved a community,” Cooper said.
Sutton said she kept in contact with Cooper over the years and considered him a friend. She testified that after her divorce, she told him she was unable to afford to pay for travel, lodging and food to attend Overstreet’s PCR proceedings when they were moved to South Bend. She said Cooper got county funds allocated that allowed her to attend.
“He was always honest,” even when news wasn’t good, Sutton said. “He never held anything back.” Despite what she called Cooper’s tough exterior, Sutton said, “I saw that he had a heart, and a big one.”
Voyles also focused on difficulties in Cooper’s personal life that preceded his comment to The Star — his mother and a sister had died and he went through a divorce in the years prior. Those who testified said these things clearly took a personal toll on Cooper, as has the discipline case.
Johnson Circuit Judge K. Mark Loyd said Cooper may come across as hardened but “his personal side is significantly different.” He said Cooper feels badly that the discipline case has put the community through the Overstreet case again.
“Brad is extremely truthful, sometimes to a fault,” testified Franklin defense attorney Russell Johnson. “I am of the belief that Brad did not attack a judge.
“It’s been difficult for Brad,” Johnson said, because he feels the case has shone a bad light on the community and on prosecutors.
Stacy Uliana shared a personal story about Cooper’s intervention to slow down police who were rushing to charge her stepson with a crime he didn’t commit. She said Cooper followed through, even attending his expungement proceeding. “He stood up for my son,” she said, which “gave me more confidence in prosecutors than I generally have.”
“I’ve seen him dress down police officers for lying,” testified criminal defense attorney Andrew Baldwin. “He will just do what is right and the politics behind it be damned.”
John P. Wilson, a 42-year attorney in Johnson County, said the community has a reputation for “straight-up lawyers … and Mr. Cooper is no exception. … One thing Brad will do is give you an opinion.”
Wilson said he’s tried more cases against Cooper than anyone, and he called his ethics impeccable. He recalled one case in which Cooper pointed out mitigating circumstances for a defendant that Wilson said he had missed.
“He does the right thing,” Wilson said. “He does justice.”
Hearing officer Todd ordered a transcript of the hearing prepared within 30 days, after which attorneys on both sides will have 30 days to present proposed findings of facts. Todd then will draft a hearing officer’s report for the Supreme Court, which will decide what sanction, if any, should be imposed on Cooper.