‘I want my name back’
Country Club Hills resident seeks gubernatorial pardon in Indiana. Experts say it would be a 1st there based on innocence claim.
By: Christy Gutowski, Chicago Tribune: May 27th, 2015
It had been nearly a decade since Keith Cooper last set eyes on his wife and three children.
Sentenced to 40 years in prison for a 1996 robbery in a small Indiana community that ended in bloodshed, Cooper tried within the concrete walls of his cell to clear his name, as he watched his children grow up through photographs.
Then, in late 2005, an Indiana Court of Appeals overturned his co-defendant’s conviction. And so Cooper was given a choice — be set free but still with a felony record or take his chances at a new trial before the same judge who convicted him. It’d be a gamble, but this time there was more conclusive DNA evidence that implicated another man as the shooter.
Cooper decided to play it safe. He chose to be a father. He chose to go home.
Now, another decade later, the Country Club Hills resident and Chicago native has petitioned Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to pardon him for a crime he insists he did not commit. His lawyer argues Cooper was wrongly imprisoned based on flawed police work, tainted witness identifications, an unreliable jailhouse snitch and a trial attorney who mishandled key DNA evidence. The witnesses and the snitch have recanted.
If his request is granted — and his felony record thus is erased — legal experts say it would mark the first gubernatorial pardon they can recall in the state’s history based on a claim of innocence.
“I want my name back,” said Cooper, 47, a forklift operator with no criminal history before 1996. “I didn’t commit the crime, and I feel as though I have the right to go and apply for a job without them looking at my background and seeing that hideous crime that’s been placed on my record, for which I’m actually innocent.”
Cooper and his co-defendant, Chris Parish, were convicted in separate trials based on eyewitness identifications. Unlike Cooper, Parish opted for another trial, but Elkhart County prosecutors dropped charges before it began. A federal jury later ruled police violated his civil rights. Parish received a nearly $5 million settlement.
Both men insist they have never met each other.
After getting back his freedom, Cooper said he put it behind him until 2008 when a recent college graduate working on Parish’s lawsuit while interning at a prominent Chicago law firm put the pieces of the puzzle together. Elliot Slosar said he wanted to uncover the truth.
A Tribune review of more than 2,000 pages of trial transcripts, police reports, witness interviews and depositions showed the case was fraught with problems from the beginning.
For example, at Cooper’s trial, his lawyer agreed to a stipulation that test results of DNA from inside the sweatband of the shooter’s hat showed he could not be excluded as a suspect. But the Indiana state police lab report stated just the opposite — that Cooper “can be eliminated as a possible contributor.”
Years later, with advances in testing and the nationwide offender database, the DNA evidence was linked to a man serving a prison term of up to 60 years in Michigan for his role in an unrelated 2002 murder.
Slosar reviewed police reports and booking mugs and learned the man’s co-defendant brother resembled Parish. The type of gun cited in the murder was the same as that in the earlier Indiana crime. Neither brother has been charged in the Elkhart robbery, and the one with the DNA connection denied involvement.
Slosar went to Kentucky, where the mother and son who were robbed now live. Neither knew that Cooper and Parish were free or that DNA evidence existed in their case. Slosar showed them lab results and the brothers’ photographs. The victims provided videotaped and written statements recanting their testimony against Cooper. Both said they now believe the real shooter is the man who is sitting in the Michigan prison.
The victims also said the lead detective pressured them to identify Cooper, even though they told him they weren’t certain.
In February 2014, months after graduating law school and weeks before the bar exam, Slosar presented the case to the Indiana Parole Board. The victims pleaded with members to support the pardon.
More than one year later, Pence has not acted. There is no deadline, and he could decide to do nothing.
Attorneys for the city of Elkhart said the multimillion-dollar settlement with Parish was not an admission of liability. They noted Cooper declined a chance to prove his claim of innocence at a retrial.
“Because of his choice, he stands convicted of this crime,” city attorney Vlado Vranjes said.
The parole board’s advisory recommendation to the governor isn’t public but, at last year’s hearing, then-Chairman Thor Miller described the facts as “absolutely fascinating.”
“I’ve been on the board 18 years, and I can honestly say this is probably one of the most interesting cases that I’ve been involved with,” he 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.”
Cooper was released in April 2006. He didn’t tell his family he was coming home.
Authorities dropped him off in South Bend, Ind., where he boarded a train to Chicago, then rode a bus to the southwest side.
He and the city changed. Most housing projects were gone, he noticed, and streets were paved with designated bike lanes.
Years earlier, his mother took out a second mortgage to help post bail and hire an attorney. She later lost her Englewood home in a foreclosure, and Cooper wasn’t sure where she lived. He went to his aunt’s house and, though it was late, the two walked to a nearby building on 63rd Street where his mother lived above a barbershop.
It’d been nine years since Barbara Moorehead saw her son. She didn’t recognize the man standing at the bottom of her stairwell. To protect himself in prison, Cooper said he packed on 100 pounds to his once lanky 6-foot-4 frame. He wore his hair in dreadlocks instead of the short Afro his mother had known.
“This man here is your love,” her sister said.
The tears began to fall after Cooper stepped into the light. His mother said she has never doubted him.
“I raised him better than that,” said Moorehead, 66.
But the homecoming was bittersweet. The life he knew before prison was gone.
He and his wife, Sheryl, tried to make a go of it again, but both said they could not rekindle what they once had. The two met as teenagers, married in 1992 and moved their family in 1996 to Elkhart. Ironically, they moved to escape the city’s violence and for better jobs.
Months after the move, Cooper one morning walked a few blocks to the local mini-mart to pick up groceries for his family. He can still recite what was in the bag: cornflakes, bacon, eggs, milk, cigarettes and a newspaper. On the way home, a squad car pulled up, and he was arrested.
“I left my family to go to the store to buy them breakfast, and I never returned back to them,” he said.
Police said Cooper matched the description of a man wanted for an attempted purse snatching. He sat in jail for two months, unable to make bail. While there, an Elkhart detective asked him about an Oct. 29, 1996, robbery in the apartment complex where he lived.
On that date, Michael Kershner said he was watching a movie with friends in his mother’s apartment when two armed men forced their way inside and demanded dope and cash. Kershner, 17, was shot in the stomach. The shooter fled, leaving behind his hat.
Parish was charged after the victims identified him in a photo lineup. But police still were looking for the shooter, whom witnesses described as a tall, thin black man.
Cooper was tall, thin and black.
The lead detective, Stephen Rezutko, wrote in a Jan. 30, 1997, report that he spotted Cooper at the police station weeks earlier in the purse case and thought he resembled a police sketch of the suspect.
Cooper denied involvement in both crimes and voluntarily gave a DNA sample. A jury acquitted him of the attempted robbery involving the purse on March 6, 1997, but, as he prepared to leave the jail, he learned his legal troubles weren’t over.
That same day, prosecutors charged him with attempted murder and robbery.
Cooper made bail this time, with his mother’s help, and joined his family in Chicago while awaiting trial. Cooper said he wanted a jury to hear the evidence but a bench trial would be cheaper, his attorney advised, so he let a judge decide his fate. His one-day trial began six months later, with his wife and children, ages 8, 6 and almost 2, in the courtroom. Sheryl Crigler said her body went numb when she heard the verdict.
“I felt as if I were dying inside,” she said. “I could hear the pain in my husband’s voice when he asked to see his kids before they took him away.”
Judge Gene Duffin acquitted Cooper of attempted murder but found him guilty of robbery. Five weeks later, Duffin sentenced Cooper to 40 years.
Cooper said he told his wife to move on with her life. He did not see his family for nearly a decade.
The years that followed were difficult. Crigler struggled to make ends meet. The oldest boy, Keith Jr., 8, went to live with his aunt. Crigler and the other two stayed with relatives, friends, in homeless shelters and motels while moving between Chicago, Minnesota, and South Bend.
Their daughter, Lakeisha Cooper, remembers walking home after school with friends and passing the shelter, then circling back after everyone was gone, to hide that she lived there.
“My mother would say, ‘It’s OK. Daddy will be back soon,’ ” said Cooper, 25, of Calumet City.
Crigler and Keith Cooper are divorced, but both said they remain friends. Cooper, who recently remarried, said one good thing came out of his time behind bars. He went in a high school dropout and emerged with a University of Indiana associate’s degree and certificates of achievement in hospice care and prison ministry.
“I did get an education,” he said, “and that’s something that can never be taken back from me.”
Besides the robbery conviction, Cooper has asked to be pardoned for a battery he committed in custody. Cooper said he broke a man’s jaw in self defense during an attempted sexual assault.
Cooper was focused on his future, not in revisiting the past, when Elliot Slosar called him in 2008.
Slosar while still in college began interning with the Exoneration Project, a joint venture between the Chicago law firm Loevy & Loevy and the University of Chicago Law School. The firm represented Parish in his lawsuit against Elkhart, and Slosar was tasked with helping gather evidence.
But Slosar quickly became interested in Keith Cooper and the choice he made not to fight.
After he found him, Slosar told Cooper that Michael Kershner and his mother, Nona Canell, recanted when learning about the DNA evidence and identifying photos of the Michigan brothers. Other witnesses in the apartment the night of the robbery who Slosar tracked down also signed affidavits recanting their trial testimonies against Cooper.
Three years after Slosar and Cooper filed the petition for a pardon, the Indiana parole board heard their case. Canell traveled from Kentucky to support them. Her son wasn’t with her, but board members watched his six-minute video plea urging them to correct his mistake.
He and Canell insist Rezutko pressured them into making a positive identification when they were uneasy.
“I kept asking (Rezutko) how do you know and he said, ’cause we did our job,’ ” Canell said. “I was angry because my son almost died … and I thought they did their job, so I believed them. They didn’t even tell us they had DNA. I just had more faith in the system.”
She turned to Cooper during the hearing, seated feet away, and tearfully said, “I’m so sorry.” The two hugged and, earlier in the day, posed for a photograph Slosar said he still keeps on his desk.
“I think about getting them justice every day,” Slosar said.
Rezutko did not respond to Tribune requests for comment. The 32-year veteran resigned from the Elkhart Police Department in October 2001, “after the chief of police informed him that there was an investigation into his conduct, unrelated to the (Kershner) investigation,” according to evidence at Parish’s civil proceedings. He defended his work during several hours of trial testimony and in an earlier deposition.
Rezutko has never been disciplined for alleged misconduct related to his work, his attorneys said.
“I did not rush to judgment in this case,” Rezutko responded in Parish’s civil proceedings.
Cooper’s trial attorney, Jack Smeeton, who still practices in Wilmette, said his only memory of the case is the long drive to Indiana.
“Keith Cooper?” he said. “It doesn’t ring a bell.”
When asked about the DNA blunder at trial, Smeeton said he can’t recall such details from that long ago but finds it “unusual and bizarre.” He did not respond after the Tribune emailed him the DNA documentation.
Cooper said he doesn’t regret playing it safe. His children were waiting. He missed their youth. He didn’t want to miss his grandkids’ childhoods too.
“I returned to what I knew to be — a worker, a provider,” he said. “I still have those moments and dreams that I’m going to wake up and be back there, and that’s the personal scar I’ll have the rest of my life.”
One of the factors of a pardon is rehabilitative efforts. Cooper wonders: How do you rehabilitate a man who is not a criminal?