Keith Cooper is becoming a household name around here these days. It’s ironic because all he wants from the State of Indiana is to have his name given back to him.
Cooper is an African-American convicted felon who lives in Chicago. He was released from the Indiana Department of Correction in 2006, after spending nearly 10 years in prison, much of it at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility.
He wants Gov. Mike Pence to issue a pardon for his conviction for an uncommon reason: he is innocent.
In 1997, Cooper was convicted in Elkhart County of armed robbery and sentenced to 40 years in prison. But by 2005 it had become clear that the evidence used to convict him was no longer credible. The conviction of his alleged accomplice had already been overturned by the Court of Appeals and remanded to Elkhart County for retrial. In the course of pursuing that retrial, the accomplice’s charges were dismissed.
Then Cooper was offered a deal: He could withdraw his petition that sought exoneration of his conviction and, in exchange, could walk out of jail a free man. Otherwise he would have to petition for a new trial himself, remaining incarcerated until its completion.
In 2006, he accepted the deal. He would be able to reunite with his three children immediately, but the felony on his record still stood.
After nine years in prison, life on the outside has had plenty of challenges. One in particular is the felony conviction still follows him everywhere, specifically in the job market. Cooper has been working as a forklift operator since his release from prison, but advancement has been regularly thwarted due to his erroneous “record.”
In 2011, five years after his release from prison, he began his journey to receive a pardon from the governor of Indiana. Many who are minimally aware of this case, like I once was, ignorantly believed that Cooper was just another convict trying to get out of prison. I just happened to read a little further the other day, and now I can’t let the situation rest.
When one seeks a “pardon,” the request is literally for the conviction to be “forgiven.” This would be a unique pardon to grant, since the requestor is technically not asking for forgiveness in the classic sense of the word. There is no admission of guilt, remorse or reform, since Cooper is claiming he is innocent and virtually everyone involved with the case now agrees. The victims, the prosecutor and, to some extent, the court system itself attest to his innocence.
So in this case, it is actually the State of Indiana that needs forgiveness.
All Cooper wants from Indiana is his name cleared and returned to him so that he can move on with his life.
So what is the problem?
First, Gov. Mike Pence, through his staff, decided that there are still some last ditch and burdensome judicial options to exhaust before the governor should act. His office does not want to inappropriately intervene in the business of the judiciary prematurely. That last-ditch effort is a post-conviction application for relief from Elkhart County.
Second, the elected prosecutor in Elkhart County is Curtis Hill, the current Republican nominee for attorney general of Indiana. Hill’s office negotiated the deal to which Cooper agreed for his 2006 release from prison. Hill has not commented on the substance of the pardon request.
I will let you decide the political calculus of the defiant approach to this no-brainer of a request, given these circumstances.
Finally, the Indiana Parole Board submitted a non-binding recommendation for pardon to the governor in March of 2014. It has been collecting dust for more than two and a half years. It is also important to note that Pence appointed the parole board members he is now ignoring.
Democrat gubernatorial nominee John Gregg is on record supporting the pardon.
Republican gubernatorial nominee and current lieutenant governor Eric Holcomb is considering the situation but believes it can be resolved quickly.
The handling of the matter, or more accurately the timid recoiling of Pence from handling it, defines his leadership abilities. Bluntly, he is simply unable to stray from the script when governing. Correcting this error by the state should be something the governor, any governor, should embrace. If righting this wrong is so undesirable for Pence, why does he claim to want to govern at all?
In a week where Pence has spent inordinate time expressing grace and forgiveness for Donald Trump’s lewd and quite possibly criminal behaviors, he is doubling down on Keith Cooper.
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and to discover that prisoner was you,” is an apt quote offered by the late Lewis Smedes, the famous theologian and Christian professor.
The irony here is that the prisoner today is no longer Cooper. The prisoner is Mike Pence. I don’t expect Pence to ever issue the pardon, since he has effectively run out his own clock by hiding from it.
And it’s an embarrassing mess he is clearly leaving behind. I have faith that in January, our next governor will do the right thing.
What I selfishly want for Keith Cooper is that he can find the strength to follow Smedes’ advice and forgive Indiana for what it has done to him.
I assure you, Mr. Cooper, this is not who we want to be. Please accept our apologies when you ultimately receive the pardon with our sincere hope that your forgiveness of us, and not ours of you, finally sets you free.