The Chicago lawyer whose client won a pardon from Gov. Eric Holcomb for a wrongful conviction in a violent 1996 Elkhart robbery singled out Vice President Mike Pence for failing to act on clear evidence of Keith Cooper’s innocence while Pence was governor.
“As governor, Mike Pence could have, and should have, done this long ago. Instead, Pence churlishly put his standing with the ‘law enforcement never-does-anything-wrong’ crowd above Mr. Cooper’s long-standing quest for justice,” Elliot Slosar, Cooper’s attorney at The Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago, said in a statement Friday. “Mr. Cooper needlessly suffered so that Pence could advance his personal political career.”
Cooper, 46, appeared with his attorneys, friends and family at a news conference Friday, one day after Holcomb issued what the Exoneration Project called Indiana’s first pardon based upon actual innocence. Slosar praised Holcomb for making that pardon one of his first executive actions.
Slosar said Holcom’s decision “has provided a measure of happiness and closure to all the victims in this case — the victims of these tragic and senseless crimes, and Keith Cooper, a victim in his own right, who lost a decade of his life for crimes he did not commit.”
The pardon removes Cooper’s robbery conviction, stating, “It is evident from a review of Mr. Cooper’s case that it is extraordinarily unique in several respects, and, based on a totality of the circumstances, is deserving of consideration for a pardon.”
Slosar said Cooper had no criminal history at the time of his conviction, but he did work two jobs to support his wife and three children. Advocates said he took a deal to be released from prison rather than take a chance on a new trial after hearing that his family had been living in a homeless shelter while he was incarcerated. Cooper now works as a forklift operator and lives in suburban Chicago.
Cooper was convicted of Class A felony robbery in 1997 and sentenced to 40 years in prison after he was accused of breaking into an Elkhart apartment in a robbery where Michael Kershner was shot and wounded. Kershner and other witnesses initially identified Cooper and Christopher Parish as the perpetrators, as did a jailhouse informant.
But over time the case fell apart. Witnesses recanted and evidence pointed to another man. All witnesses — including Kershner — ultimately recanted their testimony against Cooper, and a deputy prosecutor testified for his exoneration. DNA evidence from the crime scene also vindicated Cooper, according to the Exoneration Project. A hat the shooter left behind contained DNA matching that of Johlanis Cortez Ervin, imprisoned for an unrelated murder conviction in Michigan.
Cooper was released after co-defendant Parish’s conviction was reversed by the Indiana Court of Appeals in 2005. Their wrongful convictions were 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, according to the Exoneration Project. The project said Rezutko’s former supervisor testified in a sworn statement that 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.”
Parish sued the city of Elkhart and Rezutko over his false arrest and conviction and ultimately won a settlement of $5 million in 2014, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
The robbery victim, Kershner, also testified to the Indiana Parole Board in favor of Cooper’s exoneration. Holcomb’s pardon notes these reasons and others for granting Cooper’s petition. The pardon also notes the parole board unanimously recommended Cooper’s pardon in 2014. Pence denied Cooper’s pardon request last September, arguing Cooper first had to exhaust his remedies in court.
While Cooper in 2005 chose the certainty of his immediate release from prison over the prospect of a retrial, he continued to carry the stigma of a convicted felon. After his release from prison, he launched a mission to clear his name. Slosar on Friday credited his client’s pardon to a grassroots Indiana petition campaign through change.org that gathered more than 113,000 signatures urging Pence, then Holcomb, to grant his pardon.