Editorial: Pence puts politics ahead of fairness for innocent man

SHARE Editorial: Pence puts politics ahead of fairness for innocent man

Republican vice presidential candidate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Follow @csteditorialsIndiana Gov. Mike Pence refuses to pardon an innocent man, apparently because he is so very afraid of offending a single Donald Trump voter.

We have seen how Trump compulsively puts political self-interest before fair play and decency. Now we have to wonder if Pence, his vice presidential running mate, is cut from the same cheap cloth.

Pence’s general counsel this week notified a lawyer for Keith Cooper of suburban Country Club Hills that Cooper must pursue a lengthy and pointless legal proceeding — likely to take years — before Pence will even consider a pardon. That might sound reasonable to a non-lawyer, but it is in reality an unnecessary and unjustifiable barrier to ending this case fairly.


Follow @csteditorialsCooper, originally sentenced to 40 years in an Indiana prison for armed robbery, was freed after 10 years in 2006, and the evidence of his innocence is overwhelming. But the felony remains on his record, making it hard for him to work up to better jobs or get compensation for his wrongful conviction and time in prison. No one can give him his 10 years back, but he certainly deserves better.

So what is Gov. Pence doing about that? Ducking.

Pardoning a man who has been convicted of a serious crime — even if the underlying case falls apart and the suspect is freed — is often seen as politically risky by governors. Nobody wants to look soft on crime, even if pardoning an innocent man is hardly being soft on crime.

Here in Illinois, for example, Bruce Rauner is the third successive governor to refuse to pardon Gordon “Randy” Steidl, who spent 17 years in prison — 12 of them on Death Row — for a 1986 double murder he did not commit. Since being set free, Steidl has been a leading voice for the abolition of the death penalty, and he has helped change legislators’ minds in many states. But his request for a pardon goes unanswered.

In Cooper’s case, the victims who originally identified him and the Elkhart County prosecutor who originally helped put him behind bars all agree Cooper is innocent. A jailhouse informant who testified against Cooper recanted in 2003. In 2014, the Indiana Parole Board concluded that Pence should pardon Cooper.

And yet, Pence refuses to grant the pardon.

Cooper faced a difficult choice in 2005, when the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned the conviction of his co-defendant in the armed robbery case. The co-defendant eventually was awarded $4.9 million for his wrongful conviction. Cooper at that time was offered a choice between a new trial — with no quick resolution and the outcome in doubt — or walking out of prison immediately while remaining a felon. He chose the latter, partly because his family had been living in a shelter and needed help.

Proof that Cooper’s case went off the rails is irrefutable. A key piece of evidence is the DNA from a customized baseball cap with rhinestones. The hat, worn by a perpetrator, fell off during a scuffle during the armed robbery for which Cooper was convicted. But it did not match Cooper’s DNA. In 2004, a third DNA test linked the hat to a different man, who was serving time for a 2002 murder in Benton Harbor, Mich.

Governors can delay action on pardons, or refuse them, as they wish. Like the right of kings, from which this power descends, it is always their call.

But Pence has made a bad call, as best we can see it, and for the worst of reasons — bald political self-interest.

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