INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Keith Cooper wants to shake Gov. Eric Holcomb's hand and thank him for giving him the pardon he's so desperately wanted all these years.
He wouldn't have many kind things to say to former Indiana governor and current Vice President Mike Pence if they ever crossed paths.
Cooper, whom Holcomb pardoned with an executive order Thursday, spoke publicly for the first time since that pardon was granted. He thanked the media for getting his story out there and blasted Pence for dragging his feet on a pardon despite testimony from witnesses and DNA evidence that exonerated him in a robbery case.
Holcomb told reporters Thursday that he believed Cooper had waited long enough and shouldn’t have to endure any more uncertainty.
"Many pieces of info that had been brought forward have changed,” Holcomb said.
Cooper’s pardon request had previously been denied under the Pence Administration. Cooper was sentenced to 40 years in prison in 1997 after the conviction for armed robbery and attempted murder. The 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.
His mother mortgaged her house to pay for his defense attorney. At the time of his arrest, Cooper was married with three young children and working two jobs. While he was wrongfully incarcerated, his young family was forced to sell their possessions and move into shelters. They eventually became homeless.
"It was hard...I've missed out on my kids growing up," Cooper said. "Thanks to Eric Holcomb, I'm a free man."
He believes Pence owes him an apology and said "no comment" when asked if there was anything he'd say to the current vice president. "There are children present," he quipped during Friday's news conference.
"To go in front of Pence, begging for a pardon, I felt was an insult because he should have apologized and given me that pardon. He let Holcomb… Eric Holcomb… who was in office for 30 days pardon me, and I'm thankful for that. I’m very thankful that he had the heart to do what Pence couldn’t do."
As for Holcomb, Cooper said he'd like to meet him.
"I would love to meet Eric Holcomb. I would thank him for having compassion, for having a heart," he said. "I want to shake his hand. I want to give him a hug. I want to tell him, 'You gave me my life back.'"
Cooper, his attorney and his family said they were frustrated with the inaction of the Pence Administration. Cooper was clearly framed by an officer with a vendetta, they said, and witnesses recanted any incriminating testimony. DNA evidence also cleared Cooper, but his quest to get a pardon dragged on for years without any clear resolution.
His attorney accused Pence of failing to grant the pardon because he was seeking the vice presidency and chose to concentrate on the campaign instead of doing the right thing.
"Justice has prevailed," Cooper said. "We won. I don't know what to say but thank you all very much."
Cooper was not pardoned for a separate battery conviction he pleaded guilty to after getting into an altercation with an inmate while he was in the Elkhart County jail on the robbery charge. Lawyers say they plan to present the governor with evidence in that case and will also ask for a pardon on that felony conviction.
His attorney also said Cooper would likely seek restitution from the city of Elkhart. For now, though, Cooper is focused on enjoying his freedom and having his name cleared.
"I'm looking forward to going to Disneyland, that's for sure," he said to reporters.
"Victory is victory. We won."