For nearly 20 years, Keith Cooper had been a felon — a label wrongfully placed on him by the criminal justice system.
For the past three years, he had hoped and waited for Mike Pence to use his executive power as Indiana’s governor to issue a pardon, permanently removing that label and the stigma that goes along with a felony.
Pence (R) did not do it before he left the governorship and became vice president. But Pence’s replacement, Gov. Eric Holcomb (R), just did. He issued a pardon Thursday for the 49-year-old Cooper, who was wrongfully convicted of armed robbery in 1997 in Elkhart, Ind., according to the Indianapolis Star.
“I am very much at peace pardoning him,” Holcomb said at a news conference Thursday morning, adding, “I believe he is innocent of that crime.”
The governor said he was pardoning Cooper’s robbery conviction, but not a battery conviction.
“After careful and thoughtful consideration and review — something I’ve thought about every day over the last month — just earlier today I issued a pardon to Mr. Keith Cooper for his past and I believe wrongful armed robbery felony,” Holcomb said. “I did so because since that conviction in 1997, many pieces of information that were out and about that had been brought forward since have changed, including a victim, an informant, even the deputy prosecutor who convicted Mr. Cooper on that first crime, all have stated support or no objection to a pardon.”
Holcomb said a deputy prosecutor wrote a letter in support of Cooper’s pardon, and the judge who presided over Cooper’s trial has said he had no objection to a pardon.
Eyewitnesses who once helped convict Copper for the crime have since said they were wrong, the governor said.
And, Holcomb said, the Indiana Parole Board also unanimously recommended a pardon several years ago.
“So it’s for all of these reasons and personally believing that Mr. Cooper has waited long enough and needs not endure any further uncertainty that I issue this pardon this morning for the robbery conviction only, not the battery conviction,” the governor told reporters.
Cooper could not immediately be reached for comment. His attorney, Elliot Slosar, said in an email that Holcomb had “provided justice and closure to all of the victims in this case. The Governor has exonerated Keith Cooper by issuing the first pardon based upon actual innocence in Indiana’s history.”
Cooper’s complicated case began in January 1997, when he was arrested for attempted murder and armed robbery in a crime that had occurred 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 — a claim he maintains to this day.
Similar to one of the real suspects, Cooper is a tall, thin black man. He was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Parish, who fit the description of the accomplice, was convicted and sentenced to 30 years, according to court documents.
Evidence of Cooper’s innocence surfaced years later. That included new DNA evidence proving that a hat 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 physical description and who committed a murder in Michigan years after the Elkhart armed robbery, according to court documents.
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, court records show.
Cooper was released from prison in 2006, after spending nearly a decade behind bars.
He has been fighting for his good name ever since.
Last year, Cooper’s attorney filed a petition for post-conviction relief, arguing that “an avalanche of new evidence” entitled 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, had written the letter to Pence, saying: “Justice demands that Mr. Cooper be pardoned. We cannot undo the wrongful imprisonment of Mr. Cooper, but we can undo his wrongful conviction with a pardon,” according to the IndyStar.
Cooper’s attorney said that would be enough to get a pardon — but it was not.
In the letter explaining Pence’s decision, his general counsel wrote that because of Cooper’s “extraordinary” request, the judicial process would need to run its course before the governor could step 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, was the first man in Indiana to seek a pardon because he’s innocent.
Holcomb was sworn in Jan. 9 and issued the pardon exactly a month after taking office.
“We are elated that in four short weeks Governor Holcomb was able to provide justice for Keith Cooper and the other victims,” Slosar, the attorney, said in his email. “The swift action by Governor Holcomb proves that the four years of inaction by former Governor Pence was unnecessary and disgraceful.”