Indiana candidates back Chicago man’s stalled pardon request

WLFI File Photo
WLFI File Photo

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indiana gubernatorial candidates say they would likely grant a pardon to a Chicago man whose request hasn’t been acted upon by Gov. Mike Pence for two years despite evidence he was wrongly sent to prison for an armed robbery conviction.

Republican Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb said during a Tuesday debate that he understands Pence’s stance that 49-year-old Keith Cooper should first exhaust all court options to clear himself of the 1996 robbery in Elkhart, Indiana.

Cooper’s pardon request, which the Indiana Parole Board recommended be approved in 2014, has received renewed attention since Pence became Donald Trump’s vice presidential running mate. The governor’s general counsel wrote a letter to Cooper’s attorney last month that it would be unprecedented for an Indiana governor to grant a pardon based on an innocence claim.

Holcomb said he would want to further review the case, but clearly signaled a difference with Pence on how to proceed.

“I would look forward to quickly exonerating, quickly pardoning, swiftly, if the facts bear that out,” Holcomb said.

Democratic candidate John Gregg said he would immediately pardon Cooper based on his knowledge of the case.

“The facts in this are pretty clear,” Gregg said. “… When the system has made a mistake, we need to correct it immediately and move on.”

The governor’s office didn’t immediately reply to requests for comment Wednesday.

Cooper was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the robbery during which a teenager was shot in the stomach, but advances in DNA testing and a nationwide offender database excluded Cooper as the attacker and identified another person.

The Indiana Court of Appeals overturned his co-defendant’s conviction in 2005, and Cooper was given the choice of being released with a felony record or facing a new trial before the same judge who had convicted him. He elected to be released to go home to his wife and three children, who at times were homeless during his incarceration.

Cooper has sought a pardon since 2009 and the prosecutor who handled his trial asked Pence this year to approve the pardon, which would remove the felony conviction from his record.

Pence has pardoned three people since he became governor in 2013, while denying 39 pardons and not acting yet on 20 requests, The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette reported. Pence’s predecessor, Republican Mitch Daniels, issued 62 pardons during his eight years as governor.