By Christy Gutowski

A south suburban man who become the first person in Indiana to receive a gubernatorial pardon based upon innocence filed a lawsuit Monday against the police officers he alleges railroaded him into spending a decade in prison for a crime he did not commit.

The federal civil rights complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Indiana, names the city of Elkhart and four police officers who played a role in Keith Cooper’s arrest nearly 21 years ago.

Among the defendants is the city’s current police chief, Ed Windbigler, who is accused in the lawsuit of knowingly providing false testimony regarding an unreliable jailhouse snitch who had recanted.

Windbigler, a 30-year department veteran, did not respond Monday to a request for comment.

Cooper had no prior criminal record when police accused him of an unsolved Oct. 29, 1996, armed robbery and attempted murder in the apartment complex where he and his wife had recently moved to escape Chicago’s violence.

Police initially arrested Cooper, then 29 and working two jobs, for an unrelated purse-snatching offense, but prosecutors later charged him with the robbery after he was acquitted in the first case.

His wife and three young children ended up living in shelters and motels during his incarceration. Other collateral victims include his mother, who lost her home in a foreclosure after taking out a second mortgage to help post her son’s bail and hire an attorney.

At his lawyer’s offices Monday in Chicago, Cooper said he is trying to cope with the emotional and financial stresses of a legal case that haunts him still.

An unemployed forklift driver, Cooper said he still struggles to find work because of a felony battery conviction that remains on his record. He broke a fellow inmate’s jaw in the Elkhart County jail years ago, he said, in self-defense.

“My life is better,” said Cooper, 50, of Country Club Hills. “But I still live with that. I still have nightmares. … I missed out on a whole lot of my life. (This) can’t bring back the life I lost, but it gives me a chance to rebuild.”

His attorney, Elliot Slosar, said Cooper was wrongfully imprisoned based on flawed police work, tainted witness identifications, a jailhouse snitch and other critical trial errors.

Cooper was released early from prison after nearly 10 years in April 2006. While incarcerated, the former high school dropout received an associate’s degree and certificates of achievement in hospice care and prison ministry.

Nearly four years ago, after the victims who had identified him as the shooter recanted and DNA evidence pointed to another man, the Indiana Parole Board unanimously recommended that Cooper be pardoned.

His request, though, sat unsigned on former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s desk. After Pence left for the White House to begin his vice presidency, his successor, Eric Holcomb, granted the gubernatorial pardon.

The pardon is believed to be the first in Indiana based on a claim of innocence, legal experts say.

Cooper denies any role in the armed robbery. He and a co-defendant, Christopher Parish, insist they had never met. But the same day Cooper was acquitted of the attempted purse snatching, Elkhart prosecutors charged him with attempted murder and robbery.

Six months later, after a one-day trial, a judge acquitted Cooper of attempted murder but found him guilty of the robbery based on eyewitness identification. He was sentenced to a 40-year prison term.

The case against him began to unravel in late 2005, when the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned the co-defendant’s conviction and ordered a new trial. Prosecutors instead dropped charges against Parish, who eventually was awarded a $5 million settlement.

Cooper was given the choice of a new trial before the judge who had convicted him or to be released as a felon. Cooper said he chose to play it safe and go home to his family.

The Tribune was the first to profile the troubling case in early 2015. By then, victims in the case and the jailhouse snitch recanted earlier statements and DNA testing from the shooter’s hat had been linked to a man in a Michigan prison for his role in an unrelated 2002 murder. He has never been charged in the Elkhart armed robbery.

The 42-page federal lawsuit alleges various violations of Cooper’s constitutional rights, including due process, malicious prosecution, fabricated false evidence, negligence and conspiracy.

It accused former lead Detective Stephen Rezutko of manipulating multiple witness identifications. Rezutko, who is no longer with the department, has declined to comment in the past.

The 32-year veteran resigned in October 2001. He defended his work during trial testimony and in a deposition in Parish’s civil proceeding.

Slosar, of the civil rights law firm Loevy & Loevy in Chicago, described the suit as the “final chapter” in Cooper’s story. He said the federal jury decision in the co-defendant’s case that led up to the $5 million settlement will aid Cooper as well.

“A federal jury (in the co-defendant’s case) has already determined that the city of Elkhart had policies and practices and procedures in place that violated Mr. Parish and now Mr. Cooper’s right to have a fair trial,” Slosar said. “It’s binding upon the city because it’s the same case, case defendant, same facts.”

A city of Elkhart spokesperson did not respond Monday to a request for comment. But in the past, a city attorney noted that the co-defendant’s settlement was not an admission of liability and that Cooper declined the opportunity to prove his innocence at a retrial.

On Monday, Cooper said he still doesn’t regret playing it safe. His children were waiting. He missed their youth. He didn’t want to miss his grandkids’ childhoods too.

Cooper, whose 11 grandchildren are ages 1 to 9, said he’s hopeful that he will find peace.

“It’s finally coming to an end. It’s closure,” he said. “All this is going to be behind me very soon. And I want the people to know that there is still justice, even when injustice has been placed on a person, there’s always a rainbow at the end, and this is my rainbow.”

cmgutowski@chicagotribune.com

This article was originally published on the Chicago Tribune