Nearly twenty years since being falsely accused of armed robbery, Keith Cooper is still awaiting pardon from a crime that he did not commit.
Cooper, of Country Club Hills, Illinois, was imprisoned for 10 years in a case of mistaken identity of armed robbery. In January of this year, former Elkhart County Prosecutor Michael Christofeno wrote a letter to Indiana Governor Mike Pence asking him to pardon Cooper.
Pence, who has been in the international spotlight since becoming Donald Trump’s pick for vice president, has withheld pardoning Cooper. An online movement has sparked seeking justice, including a petition penned by HU’s very own Dr. Jack Heller with has reached 106,059 signatures.
Cooper was released from prison in 2006, following a deal with prosecutors that would shave down his sentence, allowing him to reunite with his family, but his conviction would still stand. The stain on his record has made it difficult for him to be able to provide for them financially. He has been working at the same job as a forklift operator since his release and was held in police custody when an officer recognized his conviction during a routine traffic stop.
To rephrase Cooper’s question, if Pence can’t do right by one man, what is he going to do for the entire country if he and his running mate are elected? Even with campaigning taking up most of his time, Pence could clear Cooper’s record with the stroke of a pen, something that remarkably, the governor has only done three times since taking office in 2012.
As Christians, we have to questions how can justice be so out of reach for a man living in what is believed to be “the land of the free?” Where would this man be if we, as a nation, became as enraged by criminal injustice as we did when athletes refuse to stand for a flag that’s supposed to symbolize the opposite?
An innocent man should not have to wait for a new governor to take office and recognize the discrepancy between American ideals and American justice. If Pence wants to be vice president of the free world, it’s our responsibility to tell him that he needs to earn it. Lip service to pro-life and religious liberty sympathies are no longer sufficient to gaining our votes.
As citizens in America, we also acknowledge that the current justice system is much more black and white than the mercy and love we know from Jesus. The hang-up in this particular case seems to be the plea bargain Cooper agreed to 10 years ago—he plead guilty, knowing he was innocent, to be granted an immediate release. To the court, the dotted line Cooper signed says in black ink that he’s guilty. It’s difficult for a rigid system to accept gray area.
Cooper and his attorney were given two unfavorable choices, and they selected the one that allowed him to be a “free” man reunited with his family. A man perceived to be deserving of true freedom is being victimized by a stark system.
Pence is faced with a decision that pits law and morality against each other. The two are very different. Court documents indicate Cooper’s guilt, but DNA results, Cooper, Christofeno and 106,059 citizens say otherwise. We can’t always anticipate the current flawed system of justice in America to meet us in our faith and expectation of restoration.
As followers of Christ, how do we make the system more like the Kingdom? We speak truth. We serve jury duty. We sign petitions. We take a stand, like Heller, and write those petitions. We learn to recognize injustice and gray area. We become the attorneys, judges and governors that contribute to these decisions.
Heller’s petition, “Pardon an innocent man” can be found on change.org.