Former inmate sues over conviction Pence wouldn't pardon

Man alleges city and police chief manufactured and fabricated evidence

By Rick Callahan
Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A Chicago man pardoned after spending nearly a decade in prison for an armed robbery he didn’t commit sued a northern Indiana city, its police chief and three officers on Monday. The suit alleges they framed him for the crime and “nearly destroyed his life.”

The federal lawsuit filed in South Bend by Keith Cooper accuses the city of Elkhart and the other defendants of violating his constitutional rights, including his right to a fair trial, by “manufacturing and fabricating all the evidence of his supposed guilt.”

Cooper, 50, was pardoned Feb. 9 by Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb shortly after the Republican succeeded Mike Pence, who declined to pardon him while campaigning for vice president despite the recommendations of Cooper’s prosecutor and Indiana’s parole board.

At the time of his arrest in the 1996 armed robbery during which a teenager was shot and injured, Cooper had no criminal convictions, was a married father of three and was gainfully employed and providing for his family, his suit states. He was convicted of armed robbery in 1997 and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

“Mr. Cooper had absolutely nothing to do with the crime and his wrongful conviction nearly destroyed his life,” his suit states. “He lost his liberty and his wife was forced to sell their family’s belongings and live in shelters to survive.”

Cooper served nearly a decade before he was released in 2006 after a co-defendant’s conviction was overturned, but his record made finding a job difficult. His pardon would come 11 years later, followed in March by a judge’s approval of the expungement of Cooper’s armed robbery conviction.

Cooper’s suit, which seeks unspecified damages, alleges that the Elkhart Police Department had a “routine practice” of pursuing wrongful convictions “through reckless and profoundly flawed investigations” that included false evidence and reports and coerced evidence. It also contends supervising officers knew of this misconduct but failed to properly supervise those officers.

“It took more than two decades for Keith to finally get his name back. Today begins his much shorter journey towards rebuilding the life he once enjoyed before being framed for a crime he did not commit,” one of his attorneys, Elliot Slosar, said in a statement.

The lawsuit accuses Elkhart’s current police chief, Edward Windbigler, and three officers — Steven Rezutko, Steven Ambrose and Tom Cutler — of contributing to Cooper’s wrongful conviction.

Department spokesman Sgt. Chris Snyder referred all questions to the city’s legal department. Messages seeking comment, including the question of whether Rezutko, Ambrose and Cutler remain employed with the department, were left Monday with the city’s corporation counsel, Vlado Vranjes.

Cooper’s suit states that Rezutko was largely responsible for his wrongful convictions. It alleges that he had threatened to frame Cooper for the armed robbery and shooting unless he pleaded guilty to an unrelated purse-snatching. Cooper refused to plead guilty “because he was innocent of both crimes,” the suit states.

On the same day in March 1997 that Cooper was acquitted of the purse-snatching, the suit states that Rezutko filed a probable cause affidavit initiating charges against Cooper in the armed robbery and shooting.

The suit contends that Rezutko later orchestrated “unduly suggestive photo-arrays” of various suspects to pin the crime on Cooper, threatened witnesses and withheld evidence that could have cleared Cooper’s name.

The teenager who was shot and his mother, who was present during the shooting, both told Rezutko in January 1997 that Cooper’s photo “looked like” the assailant, but not that he was the actual shooter, the suit says.

The mother and son repeatedly demanded to see an actual police lineup of possible suspects, the suit alleges, but Rezutko never arranged that, and instead allegedly fabricated false reports claiming they “were ‘very sure’ of their identifications of Mr. Cooper.”

After the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned Cooper’s co-defendant’s conviction in 2005, Cooper was given the choice of being released with a felony record, or facing a new trial. He chose to be released.

Advances in DNA technology and a nationwide offender database eventually excluded Cooper as the attacker and identified another person, based on DNA obtained from a baseball cap the shooter left at the crime scene.

Cooper had sought a pardon since 2009. The deputy prosecutor who handled his trial asked Pence in 2015 to approve the pardon to remove the felony conviction.

Pence’s general counsel notified Cooper’s attorney in September 2016 that Pence believed Cooper needed to first exhaust all his options in court for having the armed robbery conviction overturned.

Holcomb, who had been Pence’s lieutenant governor, pardoned Cooper shortly after taking office.