Elkhart denies wrongful conviction amid Cooper lawsuit

A northern Indiana city is maintaining the guilt of a Chicago man convicted in a 1996 shooting after the man filed a lawsuit following his pardon.

Attorneys for the city of Elkhart and the four officers named in the lawsuit filed responses with the U.S. District Court in South Bend on Monday denying that Keith Cooper was wrongfully convicted or that there was any misconduct during the investigation or trial, The Elkhart Truth reported. Court documents also ask that the lawsuit proceed to jury trial.

Cooper was charged in 1997 for a home invasion that resulted in a non-fatal shooting. He served 10 years of a 40-year sentence.

The lawsuit accuses Elkhart’s current police chief, Edward Windbigler, and three officers — Steven Rezutko, Steven Ambrose and Tom Cutler — of contributing to Cooper’s wrongful conviction by violating his due process, falsifying evidence and forcing or manipulating witness statements and identifications.

The lawsuit largely blames Rezutko for the wrongful conviction. It alleges that Rezutko had threatened to frame Cooper for the armed robbery and shooting unless he pleaded guilty to an unrelated purse-snatching. Cooper refused to plead guilty “because he was innocent of both crimes,” the suit states.

After the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned Cooper’s co-defendant’s conviction in 2005, Cooper was given the choice of being released with a felony record, or facing a new trial. He chose to be released.

Cooper, 50, was pardoned Feb. 9, 2017, by Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb shortly after the Republican succeeded Mike Pence, who declined to pardon him while campaigning for vice president. Holcomb cited new DNA evidence pointing to another suspect and a witness recanting on their testimony when issuing Cooper’s pardon.

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