Chicago Man Seeks First Gubernatorial Pardon in History of Indiana

© Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS Keith & Nicole Cooper at home in Country Club Hills, Illinois, April 29, 2015.
© Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS Keith & Nicole Cooper at home in Country Club Hills, Illinois, April 29, 2015.

It had been nearly a decade since Keith Cooper last set eyes on his wife and three children. 

Sentenced to 40 years in prison for a 1996 robbery in a small Indiana community that ended in bloodshed, Cooper tried within the concrete walls of his cell to clear his name, as he watched his children grow up through photographs.

Then, in late 2005, an Indiana Court of Appeals overturned his co-defendant’s conviction. And so Cooper was given a choice — be set free but still with a felony record or take his chances at a new trial before the same judge who convicted him. It’d be a gamble, but this time there was more conclusive DNA evidence that implicated another man as the shooter.

Cooper decided to play it safe. He chose to be a father. He chose to go home.

Now, another decade later, the Country Club Hills resident and Chicago native has petitioned Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to pardon him for a crime he insists he did not commit. His lawyer argues Cooper was wrongly imprisoned based on flawed police work, tainted witness identifications, an unreliable jailhouse snitch and a trial attorney who mishandled key DNA evidence. The witnesses and the snitch have recanted.

If his request is granted — and felony record thus erased — legal experts say it will mark the first gubernatorial pardon they can recall in the state’s history based on a claim of innocence.

“I want my name back,” said Cooper, 47, a forklift operator with no criminal history before 1996. “I didn’t commit the crime, and I feel as though I have the right to go and apply for a job without them looking at my background and seeing that hideous crime that’s been placed on my record, for which I’m actually innocent.”

Cooper and his co-defendant, Chris Parish, were convicted in separate trials based on eyewitness identifications. Unlike Cooper, Parish opted for another trial, but Elkhart County prosecutors dropped charges before it began. A federal jury later ruled police violated his civil rights. Parish received a nearly $5 million settlement.

Both men insist they have never met each other.

After getting back his freedom, Cooper said he put it behind him until 2008 when a recent college graduate working on Parish’s lawsuit while interning at a prominent Chicago law firm put the pieces of the puzzle together. Elliot Slosar said he wanted to uncover the truth.

A Chicago Tribune review of more than 2,000 pages of trial transcripts, police reports, witness interviews and depositions showed the case was fraught with problems from the beginning.

For example, at Cooper’s trial, his lawyer agreed to a stipulation that test results of DNA from inside the sweatband of the shooter’s hat showed he could not be excluded as a suspect. But the Indiana state police lab report stated just the opposite — that Cooper “can be eliminated as a possible contributor.”

Years later, with advances in testing and the nationwide offender database, the DNA evidence was linked to a man serving a prison term of up to 60 years in Michigan for his role in an unrelated 2002 murder.

Slosar reviewed police reports and booking mugs and learned the man’s co-defendant brother resembled Parish. The type of gun cited in the murder was the same as that in the earlier Indiana crime. Neither brother has been charged in the Elkhart robbery, and the one with the DNA connection denied involvement.

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Source: Chicago Tribune | Christy Gutowski

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