For nearly 20 years, Keith Cooper has been a felon — a label wrongfully placed on him by the criminal justice system.
And for the past three years, Cooper had hoped and waited for Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) to use his executive power and issue a gubernatorial pardon, permanently removing that label and the stigma that goes along with being a felon.
So far, that wait continues. And Cooper, who was wrongfully convicted of armed robbery in 1997 in Elkhart, Ind., has yet another battle ahead.
Pence, who’s running as the vice-presidential candidate on Donald Trump’s ticket, recently made a decision to not act on Cooper’s pardon request — at least for now. In a September letter addressed to Cooper’s attorney, Pence’s general counsel said that Cooper must first exhaust all of his appeal options in court before the governor considers his petition for a pardon, the first of its kind in the state’s history.
Last week, Cooper asked for a new trial, which his attorney, Elliot Slosar, said is the next logical step in light of Pence’s decision.
Because of that, Cooper’s angry. He has waited all this time for a pardon, he said, only to be told he has to wait longer.
“It’s just like a slap in my face. It took him three years, three years to just write that letter,” Cooper said of Pence. “He could’ve done that three years ago.”
Cooper’s complicated case began in January 1997, when he was arrested for an attempted murder and armed robbery that happened a few months earlier in an apartment complex in Elkhart, a northern Indiana town about 100 miles southeast of Chicago. Police said Cooper and an accomplice, Christopher Parish, committed the crime. But Cooper said he and Parish had never met — even to this day.
Similar to one of the real suspects, Cooper is a tall, skinny black man. He was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison. Parish, who fit the description of the accomplice, was sentenced to 30 years, court records say.
Evidence of Cooper’s innocence surfaced years later. That includes new DNA evidence proving that a hat that one of the armed robbers left at the crime scene belonged to someone else — and not to Cooper. DNA from the hat was later traced to Johlanis Ervin, who matched Cooper’s description and who committed a murder in Michigan years after the Elkhart armed robbery, according to court records.
The victims and eyewitnesses have since recanted their original statements about Cooper. They also accused the Elkhart police detective who investigated the case of manipulating them into identifying Cooper, according to court records.
Cooper was released from prison in 2006, after spending nearly a decade behind bars. What makes his case complicated is the circumstances surrounding his release.
An Elkhart judge gave Cooper two options. One is to pursue a new trial — the same route that his co-defendant, Parish, took to overturn his conviction. But going through a new trial is time-consuming and would keep Cooper in prison for at least two more years as his case works through the judicial system.
The other option, according to a story by the Indianapolis Star, is to accept a deal that would allow him to get out of prison as soon as possible. The catch: His felony will remain intact. Cooper, whose young children had been living in homeless shelters after losing their father — their breadwinner — chose to take the deal to help his family.
Now, 10 years later, Cooper decided to pursue the route he didn’t take in 2006: a new trial.
In a petition for post-conviction relief filed last week, Cooper’s attorney, Slosar, argued that “an avalanche of new evidence” entitles Cooper to a new trial. That includes DNA evidence, recantations from victims and witnesses and most recently, a crucial letter from the attorney who prosecuted Cooper in 1997.
Michael Christofeno, a former Elkhart County deputy prosecutor, wrote a letter to Pence earlier this year, the Star reported.
“Justice demands that Mr. Cooper be pardoned,” Christofeno wrote. “We cannot undo the wrongful imprisonment of Mr. Cooper, but we can undo his wrongful conviction with a pardon.”
Slosar, Cooper’s attorney, said he thought that Christofeno’s letter would be enough to persuade Pence to issue a pardon. It wasn’t.
Pence has issued only three pardons in Indiana since he took office in 2012. His predecessor, Mitch Daniels, issued more than 60 during his eight years as governor of the Hoosier State.
In the letter explaining Pence’s decision, his general counsel wrote that because of Cooper’s “extraordinary” request, the judicial process must first take its course before the governor steps in.
Normally, people seeking gubernatorial pardons are those who committed crimes and have shown exemplary behavior following their conviction. Cooper, according to the governor’s office, is the first man in Indiana to seek a pardon because he’s innocent.
“A pardon based on innocence presents a very different set of circumstances to a governor. It requires the governor to determine that the trial court, and any appellate court which weighed the available evidence were wrong,” general counsel Mark Ahearn wrote. “A pardon based on innocence requires a governor to substitute his judgment for that of the judicial branch.”
A spokeswoman for Pence said the governor’s office is pleased with Cooper’s decision to turn to the courts first. The Elkhart County prosecutor’s office has until Nov. 1 to respond to Cooper’s request for a new trial. Elkhart County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Vicki Becker, who’s handling Cooper’s case, didn’t return a call from The Washington Post on Wednesday.
But another trial — going back to the judicial system that wrongfully convicted him in the first place — is the last thing Cooper wants to do. And the letter does little to answer questions Cooper still has: How come he has waited this long? Is it because he’s black? Is it because of politics?
“I need answers from Pence,” Cooper said. “I want a better answer than the answer he gave me in that letter.”
In response, Kara Brooks, Pence’s press secretary, said that “any insinuation that race or politics is playing a role in this decision is completely false.”
So far, Cooper’s case has caught the attention of more than 100,000 people who have signed an online petition to Pence to pardon Cooper, who now lives with his second wife in a suburb outside of Chicago.
Although he has been free for 10 years, his felony conviction, which has kept him from advancing at his current job, continues to haunt him.
“I’ve worked the same job for 10 years. I still make just a little above minimum wage,” said Cooper, a forklift operator for a Chicago factory. “I barely make enough money to feed my family. We’re struggling here.”
Meanwhile, Cooper’s co-defendant, Parish, had been exonerated. In 2005, the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned his conviction. Parish also had won a civil rights lawsuit against Elkhart County officials, along with a nearly $5 million settlement, the Star reported.
For the past several months, Cooper, 49, has watched Pence step into the national spotlight as the GOP’s vice-presidential candidate. He said he tuned in on Pence’s debate with Democratic vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine on Tuesday night, hoping the Indiana governor would be asked why he hasn’t pardoned an innocent man. That didn’t happen.
“It hurts,” he said. “It really hurts me.”