Keith Cooper, Who Received Indiana’s First Pardon
Based on Actual Innocence, Reaches Historic Settlement
After being incarcerated in maximum security prison for more than seven years for crimes he didn’t commit, in 2017 Keith Cooper became the first person in Indiana history to win a governor’s pardon based upon actual innocence. Today he is announcing a record-breaking settlement with the City of Elkhart and former Elkhart officers.
“Keith Cooper not only has his name back, but he has exposed Elkhart’s epidemic of wrongful convictions over the past five years of civil litigation,” said Elliot Slosar, Cooper’s attorney at Loevy & Loevy.
“Mr. Cooper’s wrongful conviction did not happen by accident nor was it an aberration. Through this case, he has paved the way for other wrongfully convicted people from Elkhart to get a fair chance at justice. In the process, Mr. Cooper has received historic compensation for each moment of his wrongful incarceration.”
Mr. Cooper, 46, with no prior criminal record, was wrongfully convicted of a 1996 armed robbery and attempted murder in Elkhart. At the time of his arrest, he was married with three young children and employed at two jobs. While wrongfully incarcerated, his young family was forced to sell all of their possessions, move into shelters, and eventually became homeless.
Now, Mr. Cooper has reached the largest wrongful conviction settlement in Indiana history, at $7,500,000. For seven years wrongful incarceration, his settlement is believed to be one of the highest per-year wrongful conviction settlements in the nation (at almost $1.1m per year of wrongful incarceration).
Even though DNA testing of crime scene evidence – a hat left by the shooter – cleared him as a suspect, Mr. Cooper was still wrongfully convicted. His wrongful conviction was based on false testimony by a jail-house snitch and erroneous witness identifications that were manipulated by Elkhart Detective Steve Rezutko, who had previously been demoted for engaging in a pattern of similar misconduct. As Rezutko’s former supervisor put in a sworn statement, the detective “often put together extremely suggestive line-ups in order to push the witness towards his preferred suspect instead of letting the witness make an independent decision.”
The eyewitnesses against Cooper have since recorded video statements describing how they were manipulated by Rezutko, the lead detective, into falsely implicating Mr. Cooper. Nona Canell, a victim and eyewitness, provided testimony in front of the Indiana Parole Board in support of Mr. Cooper’s pardon petition. In that hearing, Ms. Canell told the Pardon and Parole Board, “If you want me to be happy, please give Keith Cooper his name back.” Notably, Michael Kershner, the crime victim who was shot back in 1996, also staunchly supports Mr. Cooper’s pardon.
More sophisticated DNA testing conducted in 2002, five years after Cooper’s conviction, not only cleared Mr. Cooper of the crime, but pointed to a serial offender, Johlanis Cortez Ervin, who is now imprisoned in Michigan for a 2002 murder. Tragically, if Elkhart police had properly investigated the 1996 armed robbery and attempted murder of Mr. Kershner, Mr. Cooper’s life would not have been ruined and Mr. Ervin might have been prevented from harming others as well.
“It is no coincidence that Keith Cooper received the largest wrongful conviction settlement in Indiana history. Keith Cooper was tragically framed for a crime he did not commit, and tragically, there are scores of additional Keith Cooper’s waiting for their chance at obtaining justice. This litigation exposed the systemic pattern of police and prosecutorial misconduct that exists in Elkhart, Indiana,” said Slosar.
Mr. Cooper’s civil lawsuit unearthed far broader, egregious misconduct in the Elkhart Police Department (EPD) The EPD conducted two separate Internal Affairs investigations into Rezutko based on allegations that he paid informants and witnesses in homicide investigations for sexual acts, but refused to fire him.
A 2001 investigation resulted in a sustained malfeasance finding against the Detective and a recommendation that he be terminated. Nonetheless, the Elkhart Police Department and Elkhart County Prosecutor’s Office allowed Rezutko to testify in other criminal cases without disclosing this evidence to the defense. None of this exculpatory evidence was disclosed to Mr. Cooper while he was wrongfully charged and convicted. When this evidence finally did surface, Mr. Cooper’s attorneys filed a motion for sanctions and propounded written discovery upon Rezutko for his past testimony. Rezutko committed suicide on the eve of the responsive deadlines.
The litigation also unearthed the existence of a racially motivated sub-group of officers, called The Wolverines in the Elkhart Police Department that preyed upon people of color in the Elkhart community. Three of the four defendants in Cooper’s civil lawsuit have been implicated as members of The Wolverines. Edward Windbigler, the recent Elkhart Chief of Police, now admits to being associated with the group.
The former Chief of Police, J.J. Ivory, has since testified that the officers would “lie,” “cheat,” and “defraud” in order to protect one another and prey upon people of color in the Elkhart community. Through Mr. Cooper’s lawsuit, nearly a dozen individuals have verified the existence of this group of officers, including Elkhart’s former Mayor and Chief of Police.