Keith Cooper: The Stigma of Black Criminality on an (Almost) Exonerated Man

Keith Cooper (Credit: Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune)

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.

Keith Cooper is shown with son Keith Cooper Jr. and his daughter, Lakeisha Cooper (Credit: Indianapolis Star)

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.

Keith Cooper, with his daughter, Lakeisha Cooper (Credit: Indianapolis Star)

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.

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Comments on “Keith Cooper: The Stigma of Black Criminality on an (Almost) Exonerated Man

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    Sometimes, even in the year 2016, when you think that you have heard all that there is to hear regarding the injustices that have been perpetrated against people of color, there are still stories that have the propensity to leave one speechless. The case of Mr. Keith Cooper is one such case. My only question at this juncture is if this meets the threshold of a case that should be brought before the Justice Department?

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      Ms. Talley, that is a good question. I am in contact with Keith Cooper’s lawyer, who works for the Exoneration Project, and I think he is pursuing every avenue he can. My guess is that the people who should have been brought before the Justice Department–especially the police officers involved–are no longer employed as officers.

      If Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence can be pressured into finally granting Cooper his pardon, he would have an excellent opportunity to sue the state of Indiana for at least as much as Christopher Parish received in 2014.

      I do agree with you: this case is astonishing.

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        I surely agree that an innocent man should be pardoned but I do have to ask about Keith Cooper’s prior criminal record, if there was one. It bothers me that I can find nothing but this story concerning the criminal case in question. It bothers me that many of the comments I do find continue to perpetrate the injustice toward the black community while not dealing with a good deal of injustice occurring for many at all levels throughout the country. Having witnessed the false reporting on one incident after another in the past few years , I don’t assume anyone is blameless just because they say so or a bunch of people jump on a bandwagon to look like they are saints.

        So the point is, did Mr. Cooper have a history of criminal behavior in which case he would not simply be picked up because he was” tall and black” as one article quoted an individual as saying . Michael Brown was not a “gentle giant” gunned down by a policeman but Ferguson burned and people continue to speak a false narrative. I am tired of Black Lives Matter; of hate speech being a one way street; of government officials who are above the law.

        So, give me more about Keith Cooper and yes, I will write to Mike Pence. Even with a criminal record, I believe a pardon is in order if Mr. Cooper did not commit the crime and that is clearly stated and verified. But I do wish to know about his general character because I am tired of hearing about how injustice is a black/white issue with blacks being the sole victim.

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        Mr. Dossett, the stigma this article addresses is real, and your comment is evidence of it. I cannot create a crime that Mr. Cooper is guilty of. He had no prior record. Yet he remains labeled, legally and within your imagination, as a “black criminal.” And that’s what is criminal.

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    I should rephrase what I’ve written: The officers who investigated the case are no longer on the Elkhart police force, and they are the ones I would guess should have been brought before the Justice Department.

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    I appreciated the article. Is there a petition people can sign on Cooper’s behalf?

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    Thanks for asking, Wanting to Know. Yes, there is a petition. I wrote it. We are almost at 1000 signatures.

    I’ll post a link below, but a few thoughts first. The petition is to get attention, and I think it will help, but it would also help if Keith Cooper’s case gets some national attention: NPR, Washington Post, the New York Times. If anyone knows reporters or columnists from these venues or others of a similar caliber, please help with reaching them. Anything we can do to get Mike Pence to have to answer the question about Mr. Cooper’s pardon will help. Here’s the petition:

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    An important discovery has been made regarding Keith Cooper’s pursuit of a pardon. Please go to the petition for details.

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    You should be ashamed of yourself for once again parading your racism to the forefront of an otherwise compelling story. One man was wrongfully convicted and that shows systemic racism? How many white men were wrongfully convicted during that year? Does that even matter to you or are you too racist to care. The joke people like you have made out of racism has ensured it will never be considered in a meaningful way by normal people. The more you call us all racist the less we will believe the very few and very serious cases that actually hold merit. The number of black men in jail closely matches the percentage in which they commit crime. That is not a white problem or racist problem it’s a criminal problem.

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      Mr. Hess,

      I’m white.

      Jack Heller

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        Why would you even waste your time replying to someone who obviously is a bigot. The only people who are quick to jump on the Internet to say they arnt racist then go on to talk down about people who have a different skin tone or came from a diffferent part of the world are truely racist. They are missing out on alot in life. I almost feel sorry for the hatefull evil ones who spend so much of their energy hating other humans for no reason but the color of their skin.

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        You’re right. Sometimes I just get fed up.

        Jack Heller

Comments are closed.