ELKHART, Ind. — Keith Cooper spent nearly a decade in prison for a robbery he didn’t commit.
Now the Chicago native will receive $7.5 million as part of a settlement, capping his years-long quest for justice against the city of Elkhart and its police department.
The settlement is the largest in Indiana history for a wrongful conviction, according to Elliot Slosar, Cooper’s attorney at Loevy & Loevy.
Cooper was wrongfully convicted in a 1996 robbery and sentenced to 40 years.
DNA found on a hat at the crime scene didn’t match Cooper’s. False testimony from a supposed eyewitness—a jailhouse snitch—and “manipulated” witness identifications led to Cooper’s wrongful conviction.
Elkhart Detective Steve Rezutko, who had previously been demoted for engaging in a pattern of misconduct, was responsible for manipulating witnesses. His former supervisor said Rezutko pushed witnesses toward his preferred suspect using “suggestive line-ups.”
Witnesses later recanted their statements. The jailhouse informant also recanted his testimony. DNA from the hat pointed to another man, Johlanis Cortez Ervin, who’s serving a sentence for a 2002 murder in Michigan.
In 2006, a judge agreed to modify Cooper’s sentence when evidence of his innocence came to light. While he was released after serving more than 8 years, the robbery conviction remained on his record.
Cooper appealed to former Gov. Mike Pence for a pardon, but the Pence Administration denied his request. Eric Holcomb pardoned him after being elected Indiana’s governor in 2016. The pardon was announced in February 2017, less than a month after Holcomb took office.
Supporters of Cooper’s pardon included the person who was shot during the robbery, eyewitnesses who’d recanted their testimony, the deputy prosecutor who handled the case and the presiding trial judge. The Indiana Parole Board unanimously recommended a pardon from the governor.
From the governor’s pardon:
“It is evident from a review of Mr. Cooper’s case that it is extraordinarily unique in several respects, and based on a totality of the circumstances, is deserving of a consideration for a pardon.”
After Cooper’s arrest, 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 family was forced to sell their possessions and move into shelters. They eventually became homeless.
Slosar said the civil lawsuit filed by Cooper unearthed a “systemic pattern of police and prosecutorial misconduct” in Elkhart. It also uncovered the existence of a racially motivated “sub-group” of officers known as “The Wolverines” that “preyed upon people of color in the Elkhart community,” according to Slosar.
Cooper sued Rezutko in addition to former Elkhart police chief Ed Windbigler and former officers Steve Ambrose and Tom Cutler. Rezutko died by suicide in 2019. He had been the subject of two internal affairs investigations into his conduct, including accusations he paid informants and witnesses for sex acts.
Cooper’s conviction, Slosar said, was “no accident” and hopes the settlement will pave the way for others in Elkhart to get a “fair chance at justice.”