Indiana Man Exonerated Through State’s First Gubernatorial Pardon Based on Innocence Sues Cops Who Framed Him

Keith Cooper’s case drew national attention as then-Governor Mike Pence pandered to his “alt-right” base by refusing to pardon a wrongfully convicted black man. His successor, Governor Holcomb, pardoned Cooper within four weeks of entering office.

November 6, 2017 – Today the first person in Indiana history to win a gubernatorial pardon based upon actual innocence sued the police officers who he says railroaded him into spending a decade in high security prison for crimes he didn’t commit. Though former Governor Pence refused to pardon Keith Cooper, his successor, Eric J. Holcomb, did so on February 9, 2017.

Cooper, 50, had no prior criminal record when he was wrongfully convicted of a 1996 armed-robbery and attempted murder in Elkhart, IN. 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.

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 fabricated by current Elkhart Chief of Police, Edward Windbigler, 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.”

All the eyewitnesses against Cooper have since recorded video statements describing how they were manipulated by Detective Rezutko 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.

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 was later imprisoned in Michigan for a 2002 murder. Sadly, 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.

“Today begins the final chapter in Keith Cooper’s story. Tragically, Keith’s 21-year wrongful conviction was not accident, but rather, the result of intentional misconduct by members of the Elkhart Police Department,” said one of his attorneys, Elliot Slosar of Loevy & Loevy Attorneys at Law. “It took more than two decades for Keith to finally get his name back. Today begins his much shorter journey towards rebuilding the life he once enjoyed before being framed for a crime he did not commit.”

Loevy & Loevy Attorneys at Law is one of the largest civil rights law firms in the country with its main offices in Chicago. Over the past decade, Loevy & Loevy has won more multi-million dollar jury verdicts over the last decade than any other civil rights law firm in the country.

Copies of Mr. Cooper’s suit, Keith Cooper v. City of Elkhart, et al., No. 3:17-cv-00834, and pardon are available here and here.

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