Man wrongfully convicted of crime asks for new trial after Gov. Pence declines to grant pardon

Keith Cooper (center) with Christina Smallwood (left - shooting victim's sister), and Nona Canell (right - eyewitness and shooting victim's mother)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.– Keith Cooper spent 10 years in prison for a crime that he didn’t commit. The state’s pardon and parole board unanimously recommended that Gov. Pence grant Cooper’s pardon request, but Pence declined. Now, Cooper is asking for a new trial.

Cooper’s attorney, Elliot Slosar, filed a petition to request a new trial after Gov. Pence requested that Cooper exhaust his options in court before requesting a pardon, according to our partners at the IndyStar.

Cooper was sentenced to 40 years in prison in 1997 after the conviction for armed robbery and attempted murder. IndyStar says in 2005, he was offered a deal to withdraw his petition for exoneration. In exchange, he could walk out a free man. He accepted the deal in 2006, but the felony remained on his record.

The conviction made finding a job and advancing in the workplace difficult. Since leaving prison, IndyStar says he has been working as a forklift operator. Slosar said at the time of his arrest, Cooper 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 become homeless.

The former prosecutor in the case, Michael A. Christofeno, wrote the following letter to Gov. Pence:

“Justice demands that Mr. Cooper be pardoned. As an attorney I certainly understand Mr. Cooper’s procedural decision which allowed him to be released from prison but did not remove his conviction. Justice however should not be circumvented under this set of circumstances on procedural grounds. We cannot undo the wrongful imprisonment of Mr. Cooper, but we can undo his wrongful conviction with a pardon.”

On Sept. 20, Pence asked that Cooper exhaust all of his options in court first. Petitions for post-conviction relief are rarely granted.

Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill has 30 days to respond to the petition.