Keith Cooper has served his time. Actually, he served someone else’s time in what appears to be a massive failing of Indiana’s criminal justice system. These things happen. The world, and the people living in it, are unquestionably imperfect after all.
Cooper is the man who spent nearly ten years in Indiana prisons for a crime he didn’t commit. He was convicted of armed robbery in 1997 and then released in 2006 as a result of a plea deal and is now living in Chicago. He is asking for a pardon of the erroneous conviction to have the felony removed from his record. This dark cloud continues to harm him.
So where does Curtis Hill fit into this hard-to-believe drama? Hill is the prosecutor in Elkhart County where Cooper was convicted. He did not prosecute the 1997 case, but he did sign the 2006 plea deal that led to Cooper’s release.
Ten years later, that “deal” has become a problem.
By 2005, while Cooper was still in prison, it had become clear that the evidence used to convict him was no longer credible. A key witness had recanted her testimony. DNA evidence had implicated someone else who was now in custody in Michigan for a different violent crime. The conviction of Cooper’s alleged accomplice had already been overturned by the Court of Appeals and remanded to Elkhart County for retrial. In the course of pursuing that retrial, the alleged accomplice’s charges were dismissed.
The credibility of the 1997 conviction had disappeared. As a result, negotiations between Cooper and Elkhart County had begun. Knowing that Cooper’s conviction would likely end up being returned to the county for retrial, the county offered this deal to him: in exchange for withdrawing his petition for exoneration, the county would agree that Cooper could walk out of jail immediately. Without this deal, Cooper would have to triumph in a retrial to earn his freedom and stay incarcerated during that process. Some estimated that timeframe to be approximately two more years.
Cooper, like most in those circumstances, took the deal and went home.
So now here we are ten years later. Cooper and his attorneys have done more than they should have had to in hopes of earning a pardon from Gov. Mike Pence. Pence though, as is his trademark, has displayed a profound lack of courage on the matter by deferring Cooper back to Elkhart County for one more attempt at post conviction relief. And while most agree it was unnecessary, Cooper’s attorneys made a request for that relief on October 1.
This week, as reported by Madeline Buckley for the Indianapolis Star, Elkhart County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Vicki E. Becker filed an objection to the request based on procedural issues with prior filings. Buckley sought comment from Curtis Hill, but he again declined, as has been reported more than once in the Star.
So why does Hill’s reluctance to speak on the substance of this issue matter to all Hoosiers? It matters because he is running for Attorney General of the State of Indiana.
His silence on the matter, and now his chief deputy’s objection to relief, implies that he does not want the armed robbery conviction erased from Cooper’s record. It also implies that Hill and Pence are sharing some sort of secretive justification for their desire to unnecessarily continue victimizing this innocent man.
Pence and Hill are the only two people I have been able to identify who do not want Cooper’s name cleared. At least Pence’s office has given a reason, albeit a dodgy unbelievable one, for their reluctance to issue the pardon.
Even the victims of the original crime support the pardon.
Hill is just flat out hiding from it. And I want an honest answer from him to one, just one question:
Since he hasn’t publicly answered that question yet, I will suggest a couple theories of my own.
Does Hill fear having to acknowledge some level of wrongdoing? Does he fear that being part of the solution to this injustice will make him appear soft on crime? Does he think his core constituency won’t understand or will not care to learn the complicated nature of this mess?
If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” than his readiness to be Attorney General should certainly be questioned.
But maybe he knows something the rest of us don’t know. Maybe he knows something that justifies his mysterious position.
The problem with that explanation is also his failure to disclose it.
Indiana, Curtis Hill cannot remain silent on this through Election Day and still be the right pick for Attorney General.
All of us should want the wrong done to Keith Cooper righted. And I believe most of us do.