INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana's new governor on Thursday pardoned a Chicago man whose request languished under then-Gov. Mike Pence despite evidence the man was wrongly sent to prison for an armed robbery conviction.
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb said he decided to pardon 49-year-old Keith Cooper because he believed Cooper had been wrongly convicted of the 1996 robbery in Elkhart, Indiana. Holcomb cited the state parole board's support for the pardon, along with the backing of the prosecutor and witnesses in the case.
"I personally believe that Mr. Cooper has waited long enough and need not endure any further uncertainty," Holcomb said.
Cooper's pardon request, which the Indiana Parole Board recommended be approved in 2014, received renewed attention after Pence became Donald Trump's vice presidential running mate last summer.
Cooper was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the robbery during which a teenager was shot in the stomach, but advances in DNA testing and a nationwide offender database excluded Cooper as the attacker and identified another person.
The Indiana Court of Appeals overturned his co-defendant's conviction in 2005, and Cooper was given the choice of being released with a felony record or facing a new trial before the same judge who had convicted him. He elected to be released to go home to his wife and three children, who at times were homeless during his incarceration.
Cooper had sought a pardon since 2009 and the deputy prosecutor who handled his trial asked Pence in 2015 to approve the pardon to remove the felony conviction from his record.
Cooper's attorney, Elliot Slosar, said Cooper and his family were elated by the pardon decision.
"He's certainly in a state of shock and could not be more thrilled that his journey toward justice has finally come to a resolution," Slosar said.
Pence's general counsel notified Slosar in September that Pence believed Cooper needed to first exhaust all his options in court for having the armed robbery conviction overturned before a pardon would be considered.
Holcomb, who was Pence's lieutenant governor, said during a gubernatorial debate in October that he understood Pence's reasoning, but expected he would exonerate Cooper.
Holcomb's pardon orderlet stand a lower-level felony battery conviction against Cooper. That charge stemmed from a fight with another inmate in the Elkhart County Jail.
Slosar said Cooper was defending himself from an attacker and that he would review options for seeking to also clear Cooper of that conviction.
"Our position is that if Keith had never been wrongfully charged or wrongfully convicted in the first place, he would have never faced that incident," Slosar said.