The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, October 11, 2016 7:41 am

Do the right thing

There is bitter irony in the fact Keith Cooper and his family moved to Indiana from Chicago in the 1990s seeking a better and safer life.

One morning Cooper walked from his home to a nearby minimart to buy breakfast for his family and never returned.

Elkhart police who saw the tall, slender Cooper walking down the street thought he looked like a black man who had attempted to steal a purse, and arrested him. A jury later cleared him of that charge. 

But while he was in custody, a detective working on an unrelated case decided Cooper also looked like the perpetrator of a brutal robbery.  

Convicted of that crime in 1997, Cooper spent almost a decade in prison. After a co-defendant was cleared and witnesses against Cooper began recanting, the state offered him a choice: Go through a new trial, which could take up to two years, or be set free without having his name cleared.

Cooper, who said he was desperate to be reunited with his family, which he had heard had endured periods of homelessness in his absence, accepted freedom without exoneration. He returned home in 2006 to find his children almost grown. He and his wife, unable to reconcile, divorced.

Later, Eliot Slosar, a student who was working on the co-defendant’s wrongful imprisonment lawsuit against the state, noticed irregularities in the case against Cooper. Most glaringly, a DNA test on a hat left at the scene by the robber had excluded Cooper as a suspect, but his own lawyer had joined with the prosecutor to stipulate that the evidence tied him to the crime.

Still labeled a felon, Cooper asked the Indiana Parole Board to help clear his name. The board’s 2014 recommendation is officially secret, but both the Indianapolis Star and the Chicago Tribune have reported that the board unanimously voted to recommend that Gov. Mike Pence grant Cooper a pardon.  

Thor Miller, then chairman of the Parole Board, was quoted by the Tribune as saying, "Basically, you were African-American and you were tall, and that was the only relationship you had toward the suspect, and the investigating detective was manipulating the witnesses with their identification. ... It’s rather shocking." 

Earlier this year, Michael Christo-feno, the former Elkhart County deputy prosecutor who secured the conviction, also wrote to the governor asking that he pardon Cooper.  But Pence, who has granted three pardons since taking office, has not yet acted. His predecessor, Mitch Daniels, granted 62 pardons during his two terms.

Asked about the case by email Tuesday, Pence spokeswoman Kara Brooks wrote, "No comment on Cooper or any pardon issues."

In fact, the governor is not legally required ever to act on the Parole Board’s advisory opinions. And Pence is, indeed, pretty busy with his joint roles as governor and vice presidential nominee.  

But there always should be time to do the right thing.

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