Wrongfully convicted Keith Cooper wins record $7.5 million in settlement from Elkhart

Category: Police Misconduct

More Info: Civil Rights Lawsuits

Keith Cooper, who spent more than eight years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of an armed robbery in Elkhart, announced Wednesday he will receive $7.5 million in a settlement agreement with the city.

Cooper’s settlement is the largest amount awarded to a plaintiff in a wrongful conviction lawsuit in Indiana, according to the University of Michigan’s Exoneration Registry, and marks the end of his legal saga, which was chronicled by the South Bend Tribune and ProPublica.

Cooper, now 46, was pardoned in 2017 by Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Cooper’s co-defendant in the 1996 robbery, Christopher Parish, was exonerated and awarded nearly $5 million in a 2014 settlement. Earlier this month, Andrew Royer filed a lawsuit saying police and prosecutors coerced him into a false confession. A handful of other cases against the Elkhart Police Department are pending.

“It’s been a long uphill battle. I’ve been waiting 14 years for this day and now it’s here,” Cooper said during a press conference Wednesday afternoon in Chicago where he now lives. “There’s no amount of money that can get me back the time I lost. But it helps build a better tomorrow for me and my family.”

In a separate press conference, Elkhart city spokeswoman Corrine Straight read a prepared statement in which the city apologized for its handling of Cooper’s case.

“We hope this settlement brings to a conclusion the obvious injustice that has been rendered to Mr. Cooper,” the statement read in part. “The current administration and current leadership in the Elkhart Police Department have set upon a path of accountability in the hopes that this kind of case will never happen again.

“To Mr. Cooper and his family, we regret the suffering you experienced.”

Elliot Slosar, an attorney who represented Cooper throughout the civil litigation, said he appreciates the city’s apology, but called on Elkhart’s mayor to bring in a special prosecutor to review every case investigated by the officers named in Cooper’s lawsuit.

“None of this would have happened if in 1996 the chief of police took accountability seriously,” Slosar said.

‘Cluster of misconduct’

On Oct. 29, 1996, police were called to a third-floor apartment in Elkhart where 17-year-old Michael Kershner, and other witnesses, said two Black men — one short and one tall — had forced their way into his apartment, and the tall suspect shot him during a struggle.

Cooper and another man, Christopher Parish, were charged in the crime after witnesses identified them as the suspects from photo arrays. Cooper was identified as the taller of the suspects, and the alleged shooter. Both men were convicted in 1997 after a bench trial before an Elkhart Circuit Court judge. Cooper was sentenced to 40 years in prison in what his lawyers Wednesday called a “cluster of misconduct.”

Cooper’s suit claimed that Elkhart police officials, including detective Steve Rezutko and former chief Ed Windbigler framed the men by fabricating witness statements and using manipulating photo lineups and other official misconduct.

In testimony in front of judges and before the Indiana Parole Board, eyewitnesses and victims who testified at Cooper’s trial recanted and said they had been manipulated by Rezutko into implicating Cooper.

Additionally, new DNA analysis done in 2002 concluded that the crime was committed by another man, who is currently in prison after being convicted of a murder in Benton Harbor.

In 2005, the state appeals court overturned Cooper’s conviction and ordered a new trial. A judge at the time offered him a choice of overturning the conviction and a possible retrial or a sentence modification that would allow Cooper to be released immediately. Cooper chose the sentence modification and was released in April 2006.

Though he was no longer in prison, Cooper was not exonerated of the robbery and so in 2013, he petitioned for then-governor Mike Pence for a pardon. Cooper’s efforts to obtain a pardon made national news as Pence declined to intervene.

Holcomb, however, issued a pardon shortly after being elected. Cooper is the first Indiana man to win a pardon based on actual innocence.

Through the discovery process in the case, Cooper and his attorneys also learned that Rezutko had been forced to resign from the Elkhart Police Department in 2001 due to sexual misconduct with an informant.

The department did not disclose that the detective paid an informant for oral sex until 2019 after numerous records requests, saying documents containing the information couldn’t be found.

Rezutko died by suicide less than a month later.

Cooper’s case also rejuvenated the Notre Dame’s Exoneration Justice Clinic and law school students have done work on other cases connected to Elkhart.

The work of the clinic is still needed, Cooper said, as he hopes his legal saga gives hope to other people who have been wrongfully convicted.

“To all those other Keith Coopers out there: keep your hope, keep your faith because we’re here to help,” said Cooper.

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See the original article here: https://www.southbendtribune.com/story/news/local/2022/05/04/keith-cooper-elkhart-indiana-lawsuit-record-settlement-wrongful-conviction-7-5-million/9628723002/

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