Keith Cooper has paid a high price for the way the justice system has dealt with him. He is innocent of the crime for which he spent nine years in prison.
But Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has declined to act on Cooper’s request for a pardon, and now the governor seems ready to delay any decision on the case until after he leaves office. If he does, Pence will be guilty of unpardonable callousness.
On his way home from a minimart with breakfast for his family one morning in 1997, Cooper was wrongfully arrested as a purse snatcher. He was later cleared of that crime, but while he was being detained, a detective looking for a tall, black suspect decided Cooper met the description and charged him with a brutal robbery. Cooper was convicted and imprisoned.
In 2006, after new evidence proved his innocence, and after the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned the conviction of a co-defendant, authorities offered to let Cooper out of prison. But his conviction would stand. Or, he could take his chances on a new trial and hope to win his freedom after an additional two years or so.
Desperate to be reunited with his economically struggling family, Cooper chose freedom.
But four years ago, Cooper, now a forklift operator in Chicago, decided to ask the Indiana Parole Board for a pardon, saying the felony on his record has prevented him from pursuing better jobs. In 2014, the board voted to ask Pence to pardon Cooper.
Last January, Michael Cristofeno, the former deputy prosecutor who secured Cooper’s conviction, wrote a letter to Pence noting that DNA evidence and recanted testimony from key witnesses show Cooper did not commit the crime. “Justice demands that Mr. Cooper be pardoned,” Cristofeno wrote.
Jack Heller, an assistant professor of English at Huntington University, started an online petition on behalf of Cooper after reading an earlier editorial in The Journal Gazette. By Wednesday afternoon, www.change.org/p/indiana-governor-pardon-an-innocent-man (shown above) had acquired 106,217 supporters.
Heller contends that Pence has ignored the parole board’s recommendation because he doesn’t want to do anything that might reflect on Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill, the Republican candidate for state attorney general. Hill wasn’t in office when Cooper was convicted, but he was prosecutor when the offer was made to Cooper that let him out of prison but kept him branded as a felon. A message left for Hill’s spokesperson wasn’t returned Wednesday afternoon.
Pence has never publicly discussed Cooper’s situation. But this week, the national magazine Governing reported on a letter Mark Ahearn, Pence’s general counsel, sent to Cooper’s attorney, Elliot Slosar of Chicago.
“Out of respect for the judicial process,” Ahearn wrote, “before this office will consider Mr. Cooper’s request further, he will need to exhaust his judicial remedies.”
Having agreed to leave prison without getting his name officially cleared, it isn’t clear that Cooper has any “judicial remedies” to exhaust. In any case, Slosar told Governing, the governor’s stance is “a delay tactic that has the potential to prolong Cooper’s quest to clear his name for several years.”
Vice presidential candidate Pence, of course, is currently half of a national ticket that stresses law-and-order politics. Pardons might not fit that theme. And win or lose in the national election, his gubernatorial term ends this year, and Cooper’s quest for exoneration will become someone else’s problem.
In his campaign for governor, Pence often said, “Indiana should be the worst place in America to commit a serious crime and the best place, once you’ve done your time, to get a second chance.”
If he believes in second chances for the guilty, why won’t he pardon an innocent man?