RICK CALLAHAN - Associated Press
A Chicago man who was pardoned after spending more than seven years in prison for an armed robbery he didn't commit has reached a $7.5 million settlement with a northern Indiana city and former police officers, his attorney and a city spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Keith Cooper's attorney, Elliot Slosar, said it is the largest wrongful conviction settlement in Indiana history and that his lawsuit “exposed the systemic pattern of police and prosecutorial misconduct that exists in Elkhart, Indiana."
“Mr. Cooper’s wrongful conviction did not happen by accident nor was it an aberration," he added in a news release.
Corinne Straight, Elkhart’s director of communications, confirmed the $7.5 million settlement, the details of which were not specified in a notice lawyers for the plaintiffs and defendants filed Tuesday in a South Bend federal court.
Straight said city officials hope the settlement “brings to a conclusion the obvious injustice that has been rendered to Mr. Cooper.”
“On behalf of the entire city of Elkhart, to Mr. Cooper and his family, we regret the suffering you have experienced,” she said in a statement.
Cooper was pardoned in February 2017 by Gov. Eric Holcomb, who said he believed Cooper had been wrongly convicted in a 1996 armed robbery in Elkhart during which a teenager was shot and wounded. Holcomb cited the state parole board’s support for the pardon, along with the backing of the prosecutor and witnesses in the case.
Cooper was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the robbery, but advances in DNA testing and a nationwide offender database excluded him 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 convicted him. He elected to be released in 2006.
Cooper’s pardon by Holcomb was followed in March 2017 by a judge’s approval of the expungement of his armed robbery conviction.
Cooper had sought a pardon since 2009 and the deputy prosecutor who handled his trial asked then-Gov. Mike Pence in 2015 to approve the pardon to remove the felony conviction.
But Pence’s general counsel notified Slosar in September 2016, two months after Pence became Donald Trump’s vice presidential running mate, that he believed Cooper needed to first exhaust all his options in court for having the conviction overturned before a pardon would be considered.
Cooper sued Elkhart, its then-police chief and three officers in November 2017, alleging that the officers framed him for the crime and “nearly destroyed his life." Two of those officers are no longer Elkhart officers and the third is dead, Slosar said.
At the time of his arrest, Cooper had no criminal convictions, was a married father of three and was employed and providing for his family, according to his suit. But after he was wrongfully incarcerated, his wife was forced to sell their belongings and had “to live in shelters to survive,” it states.
Cooper, 54, said during a news conference in Chicago that he hopes the settlement “will build a better tomorrow for me and my family.”
“There’s no amount of money that can get back the time I lost,” he said.
Cooper’s lawsuit accused the Elkhart Police Department of employing a “routine practice” of pursuing wrongful convictions “through reckless and profoundly flawed investigations” that included false evidence and reports and coerced evidence.
Straight said Wednesday that Elkhart's current administration and police leadership “have set upon a path of accountability in that hopes that this kind of case will never occur again."