The Chicago Tribune has reported that Indiana Governor Mike Pence will continue to delay a pardon decision that would clear the name of a man convicted of and imprisoned for 10 years for a 1996 armed robbery he did not commit. The governor’s general counsel indicated in a letter Tuesday to Cooper’s lawyer that they first must exhaust all judicial options for appeal.
The case against Keith Cooper, 49, fell apart when DNA testing of crime scene evidence linked to a man imprisoned for his part in a subsequent 2002 murder. Eyewitnesses and a jailhouse snitch implicating Cooper and his co-defendant also recanted.
The Indiana Parole Board unanimously recommended more than two years ago that Pence pardon Cooper. The original prosecutor and crime victim shot during the burglary have also urged Pence to grant the pardon. More than 105,000 people have signed a petition supporting the pardon.
When Cooper was nearly 10 years into his 40-year sentence, a judge offered him two options, one would grant him immediate freedom without parole requirements but retention of his conviction; the other would vacate the conviction, but put him at risk for retrial. Cooper, whose family had been in and out of homelessness, chose release. He now struggles with the felon label.
The Indiana Court of Appeals overturned Cooper’s co-defendant’s conviction in 2005. He subsequently settled a wrongful conviction lawsuit for $4.9 million.
In yesterday’s letter, General Counsel Mark Ahearn wrote, “A pardon based on innocence presents a very different set of circumstances to a governor. It requires a governor to determine that the trial court, and any appellate court which weighed the available evidence were wrong.”
“In order to make a fair and informed judgment, this office needs to know whether a) the post-conviction relief process at either the trial court or appellate level is in fact available to Mr. Cooper at all, and if available, b) whether the judicial branch vacates or refuses to vacate Mr. Cooper’s conviction.”
Cooper’s Attorney Elliot Slosar indicated that the judicial options are unclear and that Pence’s decision could prolong the clearing of Cooper’s name for years. Slosar suggested that legal requirements of “new evidence” might be questioned after Pence’s delay in this decision.
Many governors have authority to grant pardons, clemency, or commutations. These actions typically recognize unfairness and are a means of correcting an injustice not always provided or efficiently provided in our judicial system.