Keith Cooper would have received the biggest settlement paid in a wrongful conviction lawsuit in Indiana, more than two decades after he was sentenced to 40 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, according to informations.
Cooper, 54, was released after serving more than eight years in prison when new evidence revealed he had been charged with armed robbery. The state governor pardoned him in 2017, the same year he filed a civil suit against Elkhart, Indiana, its former police chief and four of his officers.
On Wednesday, May 4, city officials announced that Cooper had received a $7.5 million award in the civil case. His co-defendant in the criminal case, another black man, Christopher Parish, was awarded $5 million as part of a settlement with the city in 2014.
“It was a long, difficult battle. I waited 14 years for this day and now it’s here,” Cooper said. “No amount of money can allow me to recover the time I lost. But it helps build a better future for me and my family.
Cooper had recently moved from Chicago to Indiana in October 1996, when he and Parish were arrested for a home invasion of Michael Kershner’s apartment. Kershner, his mother and four friends said two black men burst into the apartment and shot the 17-year-old in the abdomen.
Cooper was arrested in January 1997 for bag snatching, and former Elkhart detective Steve Rezutko noticed that Cooper looked like a computerized sketch of the shooter in the Kershner case. So he included a photo of Cooper in a series of photos, and Kershner, his mother, and another witness chose Cooper from the series of photos.
At trial, a detective testified that he was told by a prison snitch that Cooper had confessed to committing the crime. However, the other inmate later came forward and said the story was fabricated. The detective had promised him a deal in exchange for his testimony, he said.
Four eyewitnesses retracted their testimony. Kershner and his mother said Rezutko turned down their requests for live programming. He also pointed out Cooper in the hallway of the courthouse so they could identify him during the trial.
DNA testing of a hat left at the scene by the shooter showed it did not belong to Cooper. He was reportedly linked to a man who is currently serving time in Michigan for murder. Additionally, a crime scene technician, during testimony at Parish’s trial, said there was no blood in the apartment, according to reports.
Cooper was released from prison in 2006. He applied to the parole board for a pardon which was not approved until 2014. Governor Eric Holcomb granted Cooper an innocence pardon in 2017.
City of Elkhart officials apologized Wednesday, May 4, for the city’s handling of the case in the 1990s and for the “suffering” he suffered. When Cooper went to jail, his wife had to sell her belongings and the family was living in shelters, according to reports.
“We hope this settlement ends the obvious injustice that has been rendered to Mr. Cooper,” Elkhart spokeswoman Corinne Straight said. “The current administration and current leadership of the Elkhart Police Department has taken a path of accountability in the hope that this kind of thing never happens again.”
Elliot Slosar, Cooper’s attorney in the civil case, said he welcomed the apology, but called on city officials to investigate all of the cases the officers dealt with in the lawsuit.
Rezutko reportedly took his own life in 2019, shortly after the city revealed he had retired in response to an internal investigation into his sexual relationship with an informant. Rezutko left the Elkhart Police Department in 2001, with letters of recommendation that would allow him to be rehired at other agencies, the report said.
“Mr. Cooper’s wrongful conviction did not happen by accident, nor was it an aberration,” Slosar said.
Cooper, a father of three and grandfather of 15, has since moved to Chicago and devotes some of his time to defending others who have been wrongfully convicted. Cooper told reporters he plans to use some of the money to take all of his grandchildren to Disney World, buy an RV and take a road trip to Canada.
“I’m just overwhelmed. I am a new man. I just have to deal with it,” Keith reportedly told his wife. “I am free… I can be things. I can go places.