The newly-elected Governor of Indiana Eric Holcomb has pardoned a wrongfully convicted man whose petition for exoneration was delayed for more than two years by his predecessor, Vice President Mike Pence.
After serving 10 years of a 40-year prison sentence for armed robbery and attempted murder, Keith Cooper, 46, was freed when eyewitnesses recanted their testimony against him, new DNA evidence showed he wasn’t at the scene of the crime, and a jailhouse informant admitted that he lied to investigators.
Five years later, Cooper’s pardon petition was presented to the state parole board, who found unanimously that he should be pardoned and have the two serious felony charges wiped from his record.
But after the parole board delivered its recommendation on Cooper to the governor’s office, Pence sat on the pardon for more than two years — claiming that Cooper had not exhausted all other judicial remedies with the courts.
“To our knowledge, Mr. Cooper has not filed a petition with the courts in Elkhart County to determine whether post-conviction relief is available,” Gov. Pence’s general counsel Mark Ahearn wrote in a letter to Cooper in September.
After Pence joined the Trump campaign as his VP candidate he resigned the governorship, leaving his successor to deal with the Cooper case. While they waited for further action from the Governor’s office, Cooper’s attorney filed a petition this fall for a new trial. And despite being freed from prison, the two felonies remained on Cooper’s record.
“I’m tired of people judging me by that conviction. That [Department of Correction] number. That’s not who I am,” Cooper told BuzzFeed News in August. “Man, I know that better than my own Social Security number.”
In August 2016, BuzzFeed News reported about Cooper’s wrongful conviction in the 1996 robbery where one man was shot.
Twelve years after the incident, in 2008, shooting victim Michael Kershner and his mother, Nona Canell, gave videotaped statements claiming that they misidentified Cooper.
They said that they believed based on the new evidence that the person whose DNA was found on a hat left behind at the crime scene was the shooter. Canell said that during the investigation she requested “numerous times” to see a lineup of suspects, but the lead detective on the case, an Elkhart Police detective, assured her that they had “the right guy” in Cooper.
At an October debate, then-candidate for Governor Eric Holcomb said he understood Pence’s thinking in letting the judicial process play out.
However, Holcomb, who served as Pence’s lieutenant governor, appeared to depart from Pence’s stance that this was a matter for the court to decide, saying that if elected he would like to meet with Cooper and review the facts of the case.
“I would look forward to quickly exonerating, quickly pardoning, swiftly if the facts bear that out,” Holcomb said.
On Thursday, Holcomb made good on that statement and announced on Twitter that he was pardoning Cooper.
“My decision is based on a review of the facts,” Governor Holcomb said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “Keith Cooper has waited long enough and is deserving of a pardon.”
“As governor, Mike Pence could have, and should have, done this long ago. Instead, Pence churlishly put his standing with the ‘law enforcement never-does-anything-wrong’ crowd above Mr. Cooper’s long-standing quest for justice,” said Elliot Slosar, Cooper’s attorney at The Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago. “Mr. Cooper needlessly suffered so that Pence could advance his personal political career.”
"The courageous decision by Governor Holcomb has provided a measure of happiness and closure to all the victims in this case - the victims of these tragic and senseless crimes, and Keith Cooper, a victim in his own right, who lost a decade of his life for a crime he did not commit," said Slosar.
The pardoning makes Cooper the first person in the state’s history granted clemency based on a finding of innocence.
Michael Hayes is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Mike Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.