Keith Cooper, a former Elkhart resident wrongfully convicted of a 1996 armed robbery, recalls the moment he walked out of prison in 2006, nine years into a 40-year sentence for a crime he did not commit.
"That was one of the happiest moments of my life, to be free," Cooper said. "To be told that, 'Keith, you back among the living now. You can go and get your family."
But his journey to freedom was not a smooth one, hampered at nearly every turn by a system that seemed designed to deny him justice — even in the face of overwhelming evidence of his innocence.
The first person pardoned in Indiana based on actual innocence, Cooper spoke of that journey April 12 as part of a discussion hosted by the Innocent Project Club at the University of Notre Dame.
The 49-year-old was joined by his attorney, Elliot Slosar of the Chicago Exoneration Project and the law firm Loevy and Loevy, and wife, Nicole Cooper.
Jimmy Gurule, a professor of law at the university and an expert in the field of international criminal law, moderated the discussion.
Now 49 and living in Chicago, Cooper was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 40 years in prison in Elkhart County in 1997 based on faulty DNA evidence and witness statements.
"On Sept. 9, 1997, there was a travesty of justice that occurred," Gurule said April 12. "An innocent man was wrongfully convicted. And by the way, he was convicted next door, he was convicted literally a few miles away from this campus."
In 2002, the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned the conviction of his co-defendant, Michael Parish, and offered Cooper a choice: a new trial before the same judge who previously convicted him or release with a felony on his record.
With his family living in a homeless shelter, Cooper chose the latter, figuring, he said, "I'm going to take this so I can get home and immediately assist my family."
Twelve years later, in 2014, the Indiana Parole Board unanimously recommended that then-Gov. Mike Pence pardon Cooper, but Pence's general counsel advised Cooper to first exhaust all of his legal options.
Finally, in February, Pence's successor, Eric Holcomb, did what Pence would not do: grant Cooper a pardon based on actual innocence.
"For the past 20 years, Keith has been fighting this wrongful conviction," Slosar said Wednesday.
A law student at the time, Slosar met Cooper while representing Parish, his co-defendant, who later received a $5 million settlement from the city of Elkhart.
The victims in the case had recently admitted on tape that they had misidentified Parish and Cooper, Slosar said, and he thought Cooper should see it. So he invited him to his office in Chicago.
"He cried. I got emotional," Slosar said. "I said, 'Gosh, how am I, as a law student, going to help this guy?'"
Rather than seek justice via the same judicial system that wrongfully convicted him in the first place, Slosar decided to go straight to the governor's office and request a pardon for Cooper.
He first did so in 2009, but was told he had to wait until five years after Cooper was released from prison. So he waited until 2011 and filed the paperwork again.
Finally, in 2014, the state Parole Board, after hearing from witnesses and Cooper himself, recommended a pardon based on actual innocence — not only for the armed robbery but for a subsequent battery conviction while in prison.
"And then we waited," Slosar said. "And every two months until Gov. Pence went to D.C., we had conversations with his general counsel for the state of Indiana. And we were led to believe that if we were able to get a letter from the lawyer who prosecuted Mr. Cooper or the judge who wrongfully convicted him saying the conviction should be reversed, that Gov. Pence would then be comfortable granting the" pardon.
He was able to get such a letter from the lawyer who prosecuted the case, he said, but "Pence did nothing except for promise us he was giving it really careful consideration."
In January, Pence left for Washington to serve as vice president under Donald Trump. One month later, Holcomb pardoned Cooper.
Slosar was meeting with another client in Arizona at the time, he said. But the witness they wanted to talk to wasn't home, so they went to the nearest café to wait.
"And the café was the Hoosier Café," he said. "So when I got the call from the general counsel for the state of Indiana, I was sitting in the Hoosier Café, all the way across the country."
Slosar is currently representing two other clients who he says were wrongfully convicted in Elkhart County as well, both in cases involving the same detective that investigated Cooper's case.
Cooper, meanwhile, has found life outside of prison difficult. Unlike his conviction, his arrest record has yet to be expunged, and he worries about what might happen if he's pulled over by police and they see it.
He also carries emotional scars from his time behind bars.
"He still has things that hurt him. Lots of things hurt him," his wife, Nicole Cooper, said. "He has bad dreams. He gets frustrated. But we say a prayer and God keeps us moving."
Sometimes, Nicole Cooper said, she'll dance with her husband in the middle of the night when he can't sleep, or head to the kitchen when he says, "Baby, I have a taste for this," as a way to calm his nerves.
"We try to make sure we do that for him and it takes the stress off," she said.
Time has been kinder to those on the other side of the case.
Pence is now vice president of the U.S. The lawyer who prosecuted the case is now a judge. And the county prosecutor who oversaw the lawyer is now the attorney general for the state.
Said Gurule, the law professor, "I don't know where the justice is in all that, anyway."
This story was originally published in The South Bend Tribune.