In January 1997, police officers in Elkhart, Indiana arrested Keith Cooper for a purse snatching because he fit the general description of a tall, thin black man. About a month later, Cooper was acquitted of the purse-snatching charge. But before he could leave the Elkhart County Jail, he was arrested again along with an alleged accomplice, Christopher Parish, for a home invasion robbery which resulted in serious injury and for attempted murder.
Both men insist they never knew each other. They were tried separately with Cooper first. They both pleaded not guilty to the charges, but were found guilty, primarily on the basis of eyewitness testimony. Cooper was sentenced to 40 years as the alleged shooter, and Parish to 30 years. Both men then began to appeal their convictions.
The case against Parish fell apart first. In 2005, the Court of Appeals of Indiana found that he had received an inadequate legal defense and that the case had not been properly investigated to reveal exculpatory evidence. He was exonerated in 2006, and in 2014, he was awarded $4.9 million to settle his claims against Indiana for his wrongful conviction.
Just after Parish’s conviction was reversed, Keith Cooper was offered a deal to settle his appeal. He could wait in prison to be retried, which he was told could take up to two years, or he could be released with time served, with his felony conviction still on his record. Having heard from his sister that his wife and children were living in a homeless shelter, he chose to be released from prison.
Since Cooper’s release, a fuller picture of the injustices of his case have emerged—an investigator leading the witnesses to identify him as the shooter, his trial attorney agreeing to leave out the DNA evidence from a hat recovered at the crime scene, and a jailhouse informant perjuring himself on the witness stand. When the DNA evidence was re-examined in 2004, not only did the evidence not match Cooper or Parish, but it matched a man who began a 65-year sentence in 2002 for a murder in Michigan. Since then, the victims of the robbery have identified the Michigan inmate as the robber.
The injustices Keith Cooper has suffered in the Indiana criminal justice system sheds light on the systemic patterns of racism in our court system. As scholars such as Elizabeth Hinton, Dan Berger and others have demonstrated, the US prison system has disproportionately harmed people of color—especially black men. Often these cases go unnoticed and individual experiences are overshadowed by statistics. But Cooper’s case underscores the unfortunate realities of mass incarceration in the United States and our public officials’ refusal to address these concerns.
Ironically, although the evidence exonerates Keith Cooper, his felony conviction has ongoing consequences. Indiana has no law to provide compensation for those who have been wrongfully convicted or incarcerated. It would be hard for Cooper to sue the state for compensation as long as he still has the conviction on his record. The conviction also affects his employment prospects. He is currently obligated to check the felony conviction box if he searches for a promotion or another job. But the severest consequence is the stigma of the conviction itself.
In February 2014, Cooper and his attorney presented his case for a pardon before the Indiana Parole Board. At the conclusion of the hearing, the chairman told Cooper, “Basically you were African-American and you were tall, and that was the only relationship you had toward the suspect, and the investigating detective was manipulating the witnesses with their identification. . . . It’s rather shocking.” In March 2014, the parole board sent a unanimous recommendation for a pardon to Indiana Governor Mike Pence–now Donald Trump’s running mate. If the pardon is granted, it would become the first in Indiana based on the convicted person’s actual innocence.
From March 2014 until May 2015, no action had been taken on the pardon recommendation, as the Chicago Tribune reported in its first long profile of Cooper’s case on May 27, 2015. “Pence has not acted,” the Tribune stated. “There is no deadline, and he could decide to do nothing.”
The Indianapolis Star published its own profile on December 5, 2015. The newspaper published facsimiles of several documents presented to the Indiana Parole Board to support Cooper’s exoneration: two affidavits of the jailhouse witness recanting his testimony against Cooper, and the results of the two DNA tests on the hat found at the scene of the robbery. But Cooper’s petition remained “under review,” according to a Pence spokeswoman.
Two weeks later, the Star published another report on the case. “How much longer Cooper must wait for a pardon, or even if it’s going to be granted is unclear. The governor’s communications staff did not return calls from The Indianapolis Star, but a spokeswoman has responded twice by email to say the pardon petition is under review.” The Star reported that the governor’s communication staff did not respond to questions about the process of reviewing pardon petitions or what factors are considered in deciding gubernatorial pardons. But the Republican governor told the [Fort Wayne] Journal-Gazette in December 2014 that he hadn’t pardoned anyone in his first two years in office because of his “heavy bias for respect for due process of law.”
In January 2016, the prosecutor of the 1997 robbery charge against Cooper wrote a letter to Governor Pence, urging him to pardon Cooper. But again, “When [the Star] inquired about the status of Cooper’s pardon petition, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office only said that no decision has been made.” The Chicago Tribune reported the same things on July 21, 2016, as did the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette on July 28, 2016.
It has now been two years and five months since the parole board recommendation. Days ago, Pence’s office once again declined to speak to reporters about the case. Pence’s press secretary sounded a familiar line to BuzzFeed on August 4, 2016: “This case is still under consideration.”
The easy conclusion from this record of repetition is that the governor’s office is not being forthcoming. Clearly, Cooper’s case is not under consideration. But, the quick dismissal—and their ability to get away with it–serves as a metaphor for how black people are often treated in the US criminal justice system.
Cooper’s innocence has been inconsequential to Governor Pence. Cooper’s innocence has been inconsequential to many others. Despite all the incontrovertible evidence, his pardon has still not been granted. Indeed, Cooper’s life is one black life that has not yet mattered.
To sign a petition addressed to Gov. Pence, please click here.
Jack Heller is associate professor of English at Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana. In October 2013, Heller began Shakespeare at Pendleton, a program for inmates at Indiana’s Pendleton Correctional Facility to study and participate in performing Shakespeare’s works. Heller has also been a regular academic consultant for Shakespeare Behind Bars, a pioneering arts organization guiding prison inmates through the study, rehearsal, and performance of Shakespeare’s plays.