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Keith Cooper

Other Indiana Exonerations with Jailhouse Informants
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On October 29, 1996, police were called to a third-floor apartment in Elkhart, Indiana, where 17-year-old Michael Kershner, his mother, Nona Canell, and four friends reported that two gunmen had burst in and robbed them. Kershner was wounded by a gunshot in the abdomen. The gunman left behind a hat that fell off his head.

Two days later, one of the witnesses, 15-year-old Eddie Love, identified 20-year-old Christopher Parish as one of the robbers. In January 1997, 29-year-old Keith Cooper was arrested on a purse snatching charge. A police detective decided that because Cooper was black, tall and skinny—the description of the gunman given by the witnesses—he must have been the gunman. So Cooper’s photograph was put into a photographic lineup and ultimately, Canell, Love and Kershner identified him as the gunman. Those witnesses also identified Parish from a photo lineup, as did other witnesses who were in the apartment.

Cooper went on trial first in Elkhart County Circuit Court in the fall of 1997. Testifying before a judge who heard the case without a jury, Canell, Kershner and Love identified Cooper as the gunman. The prosecution called Debery Coleman, a jail inmate, as a witness, but Coleman refused to testify. So the prosecution was allowed to call a detective who testified that Coleman reported that after Cooper was arrested and was awaiting trial, he confessed to Coleman that he committed the crime.

By that time, DNA tests had been performed on the sweatband of the hat left behind by the gunman. Although the tests identified a DNA profile that did not match Cooper, Cooper’s lawyer inexplicably allowed the prosecution to tell the jury that the testing did not eliminate Cooper.

Cooper testified and denied involvement in the crime. The prosecution then called 19-year-old Jason Ackley to testify. Ackley said he was in the bathroom at the time of the crime and did not see the robbers. However, he testified that he recognized Cooper’s voice as the voice of the gunman.

On September 9, 1997, the judge acquitted Cooper of attempted murder, but convicted him of robbery resulting in serious bodily injury. Cooper was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

In 1998, Parish went on trial. He was identified by Kershner and Canell, as well as by Jermaine Bradley, who was also in the apartment at the time of the crime. Seven witnesses, all family members, testified that Parish was in Chicago at the time of the shooting. On July 23, 1998, the jury convicted Parish and he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

After Parish’s conviction was affirmed on appeal in 1999, Parish filed a petition for post-conviction relief in 2002, which was amended in 2004. At a hearing on the petition, Parish presented evidence that his trial attorney had failed to adequately investigate the case prior to trial.

He presented evidence that showed that Kershner was shot in the parking lot outside the building and falsely reported it as occurring in the apartment because he was on home detention for a gun charge. Love testified that police coerced him to identify Parish. Further, a crime scene technician said he found no blood in the apartment although Kershner was bleeding from his gunshot wound.

In addition, DNA tests conducted after Parish’s trial on the hat found inside the apartment, which the prosecution argued at trial belonged to Cooper, showed not Cooper’s DNA, but that of a man who was convicted in 2002 of attempted murder and was serving a 62-year sentence in a Michigan prison.

Parish also presented evidence that there were 12 alibi witnesses who could account for his whereabouts, including at least one who was not a family member.

The trial court, however, denied the petition.

On December 6, 2005, the Court of Appeals of Indiana reversed the trial court, set aside the verdict and ordered a new trial, finding that Parish had received an inadequate legal defense. By not investigating the possibility that the shooting occurred outside the apartment, Parish was denied an opportunity to undermine eyewitness accounts that the shooting took place inside the apartment, the court ruled. The charges against Parish were then dismissed.

By that time, witnesses had begun to recant their testimony. Coleman, the jail informant who said Cooper had confessed, recanted and said that he was promised leniency in his own charges—a promise that the detective who took the statement had failed to disclose at Cooper’s trial.

At that time, Cooper had a petition for a new trial pending. The judge 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.

Parish filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit and on October 27, 2010, a civil jury awarded him $78,125 in damages. A total of $191,000 in attorney’s fees and costs also was assessed.

Parish's attorneys appealed the damage award, arguing that it was too low. In December 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit set aside the damage award and sent the case back for a new trial on damages, ruling that the trial judge had improperly barred evidence of Parish's innocence to be presented to the jury. In January 2014, the case was settled for $5 million.

In 2013, Elliott Slosar, Parish’s attorney from the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School, requested a pardon for Cooper from Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. The pardon, which the prosecutor in Cooper’s 1997 trial supported, included the evidence of the recantations from Canell and Kershner, which were part of the lawsuit brought by Parish.

Canell and Kershner said that the lead detective in the case, Steve Rezutko, had manipulated them into identifying Cooper and Parish, even though they were unsure. Rezutko, they said, refused their requests for a live lineup. At Cooper’s trial, they said, Rezutko pointed out Cooper in the hallway so they would know to identify him in court. Love recanted his identification of Cooper and Parish, as did Ackley, who said that he would have identified anyone that Rezutko told him to identify.

The petition for a pardon also disclosed that further DNA testing on the hat had identified the DNA as that of Johlanis Ervin, who was serving a 60-year prison term for a murder committed in Berrien, Michigan in 2002—six years after the Elkhart crime. Canell and Kershner had identified Ervin and his brother as the two men who came to their apartment.

Although the Indiana Parole Board recommended that Cooper be pardoned, Pence declined to act on the request. On February 9, 2017, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, who was elected after Pence left office to join Donald Trump as his vice presidential running mate, granted Cooper’s pardon.

In November 2017, Cooper filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Elkhart and four of its police officers.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/18/2017
Last Updated: 11/6/2017
State:Indiana
County:Elkhart
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1996
Convicted:1997
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:40 years
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:29
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*