The following editorial was published by the South Bend (IN) Tribune on July 28, 2016.
As the presidential contest kicks into high gear with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence on board as the Republican vice presidential nominee, a smaller, less visible but meaningful campaign is being waged.
The effort seeks justice — in the form of a pardon from Pence — for a man wrongly convicted in an attempted murder and robbery in Elkhart 20 years ago.
As detailed in a recent Chicago Tribune story, more than two years ago, the Indiana Parole Board recommended that Pence issue a pardon for Keith Cooper. Cooper was convicted and sentenced to 40 years for an October 1996 armed robbery in the apartment complex where he lived, during which a 17-year-old was shot in the stomach. After the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned his co-defendant’s conviction, Cooper was given the choice of being set free with the felony conviction on his record or facing a new trial. He chose to go home to his wife and three children.
That decision has affected his ability to secure a better living. And his name isn’t truly cleared.
With the help of a young man who was working on a lawsuit filed by Cooper’s co-defendant, Cooper has built a solid case for a pardon: The victims of the armed robbery recanted and identified photos of the two men who were actually implicated by the DNA evidence. Other witnesses in the apartment also signed affidavits recanting their testimony against Cooper. In a six-minute video that was part of Cooper’s petition before the Indiana parole board, the man who was shot during the robbery urged the board to correct his grave mistake.
And here’s what Michael A. Christofeno, the original trial prosecutor, said in a letter to Pence earlier this year: “Justice demands that Mr. Cooper be pardoned. We cannot undo the wrongful imprisonment of Mr. Cooper, but we can undo his wrongful conviction with a pardon.”
If granted, legal experts say it would be the state’s first exoneration they can recall through a gubernatorial pardon based on innocence.
Conventional wisdom says that the governor, who didn’t act in the case before he was in such a bright national spotlight, isn’t likely to do so in the midst of a presidential campaign. A communication consultant expert quoted in an Associated Press story says approving at this time would be a distraction. In that article, Fran Watson, a clinical professor of law at Indiana University McKinney School of Law, says she doesn’t expect a pardon before the election but adds that Pence has “got this really good opportunity to do the right thing without anyone objecting.”
The victims, prosecutor and parole board have spoken. Now it’s past time for Gov. Mike Pence to act, to take this really good opportunity to do what is right.