While Indiana Governor Mike Pence has been stumping around the U.S. as Donald Trump’s running mate, he has been letting some serious issues go undone here in the Hoosier state. Granted, Pence has been massively unpopular here since he turned down much-needed federal funding for pre-kindergarten in 2014 and after he championed the anti-LGBT Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and it blew up on him in 2015.
One serious matter that Mike Pence has left undone in his pursuit of the vice-presidential office is the pardoning of Keith Cooper, a man who spent almost a decade in jail for a crime he did not commit and indeed was proven INNOCENT by DNA evidence.
The Indianapolis Star has been covering Cooper’s story over the last two years, noting in one of their most recent updates on the case that:
Cooper in 2014 asked the Indiana Parole Board for a pardon. The agency recommended that Pence grant it, which would dissolve the conviction on his record and affirm his innocence. The attorney who helped prosecute Cooper, former Elkhart County Deputy Prosecutor Michael A. Christofeno, in January wrote a letter to Pence urging that he pardon Cooper as he said newly uncovered evidence exonerated Cooper. But still, the conviction hangs around Cooper’s neck, weighing him down. He hasn’t been able to secure a promotion at work. The conviction is on his record, there to raise eyebrows each time he is pulled over for a minor traffic violation. (8/2/2016)
In the last month, Huntington University English professor and criminal justice advocate Jack Heller has led a campaign to petition Gov. Pence to pardon Cooper. (Read about Jack Heller’s work directing Shakespeare in one Indiana prison in a 2013 RLC interview). This campaign has garnered over 100K signatures and yet Gov. Pence has not shown any signs that he will pardon Keith Cooper.
In a recent post to the petition campaign, Heller uncovered a possible reason that Gov. Pence may be stalling in extending a pardon to Cooper:
Keith Cooper had a co-defendant on the robbery charge. Christopher Parish was also convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He appealed his conviction on the basis of alibi testimony which had not been given sufficient consideration, the DNA evidence from the hat recovered at the crime scene, and the inadequate police investigation of the case. On December 5, 2005, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed Mr. Parish’s trial court verdict and ordered a new trial of the charges. Instead of a new trial, the Elkhart County prosecutor’s office dropped the charges against Mr. Parish, and in January 2014, Christopher Parish won a $4.9 million settlement. …
Simultaneously to Mr. Parish’s appeal, Mr. Cooper was pursuing his own appeal. After the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned Mr. Parish’s appeal, the Elkhart County trial court sent Mr. Cooper an offer. Here I will quote from the petition presented to the parole board: “Once Parish’s conviction was overturned, the trial court gave Mr. Cooper, through his attorney two options: Either the court would grant Mr. Cooper’s post-conviction petition and order a new trial, or, if Mr. Cooper pled guilty, he could be released immediately with a sentence modification to time served and no parole requirements. . . . The choice was agonizing and unfair. Mr. Cooper and his attorney were both concerned that the police misconduct would continue. Mr. Cooper also wanted very badly to be reunited with his wife and children, whom he had been torn away from nearly a decade before. After conferring with his attorney, Mr. Cooper decided to take the choice that resulted in his immediate release from prison, i.e., the sentence modification.”
Mr. Cooper did not actually plead guilty. This is what he wrote to his attorney on January 9, 2006 to accept the offer, “In answering your question about the choice posed by Judge Duffin, my answer is yes. I would accept the sentence modification for the time served with the acceptance that I would not have to do any parole upon my release. In return, Judge Duffin can keep the conviction, and I’d have my freedom.”
Keep in mind that Mr. Cooper accepted this deal at a time when his family was in desperate circumstances, but also when the case against Mr. Parish was falling apart. It is most reasonable to suppose that the Elkhart County trial court offered Mr. Cooper the deal to forestall a re-examination of his case in the light of the developing failure of the case against Mr. Parish.
The prosecuting attorney for the state of Indiana in completing this April 2006 agreement was Curtis Hill. You may see his name on the document attached to this update. One may reasonably believe that he knew what was happening to the evidence in the cases against both Parish and Cooper.
So it is relevant to note that currently, Curtis Hill is the Indiana Republican Party’s candidate in the race to become the state’s next Attorney General. If Governor Pence were to sign a pardon for Keith Cooper it would draw attention to the injustices that he had suffered from the legal system in Elkhart County, Indiana, and of Mr. Hill’s role in completing a bad deal for Mr. Cooper.
Gov. Mike Pence has a history of preferring his own political agenda to the best interests of the citizens of our state, and indeed it seems that in denying justice to Keith Cooper for the wrongs dealt to him by the State of Indiana, Pence is not only safeguarding his own vice-presidential ambitions, but also the Attorney General campaign of his party-mate Curtis Hill.
Please take a moment and SIGN THE PETITION for Mike Pence to pardon Keith Cooper. We are appealing to the wider faith community in the U.S. to plead with us for justice that is being denied as Pence abdicates his duties to serve the people of his home state of Indiana.
Christopher Smith is senior editor of The Englewood Review of Books, and author of the new book Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (IVP Books).