By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) - A man who served 10 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of armed robbery thanked Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb on Friday for granting him a pardon that had been denied to him by former governor and current Vice President Mike Pence.
Holcomb, the former lieutenant governor who ascended to the governorship when Pence became vice president, this week granted what is believed to be the first gubernatorial pardon based on actual innocence in Indiana history.
Pence, like Holcomb a Republican, had declined to pardon Keith Cooper despite what his attorneys described as overwhelming evidence that he was wrongfully convicted. The victims in the case called on Pence to pardon Cooper, and media attention to his story generated a petition to the governor's office bearing more than 100,000 signatures.
The pardon removes the stigma of having a felony robbery conviction on Cooper's record.
"Thanks to Governor Holcomb, I'm a free man now," Cooper, a 49-year-old African-American, said at a news conference in Chicago on Friday. "I got my name back. I'm Keith Cooper."
Cooper was imprisoned for a 1996 armed robbery in Elkhart, Indiana, but was set free in 2006 after his co-defendant's conviction was overturned based on "serious concerns about his trial and effectiveness of counsel," according to Holcomb's executive order.
Every witness who identified Cooper at trial has since recanted, according to court filings by Cooper's lawyer, Elliot Slosur, a member of the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School.
In addition, DNA evidence collected from the suspect's hat pointed to another person.
Slosur accused Pence of refusing to pardon Cooper for political reasons.
"The victims in this case support Keith Cooper," he said. "For the past decade, they had begged the governor of Indiana to right that wrong, and for four years Governor Pence ignored their pleas."
In September, Pence's general counsel wrote Slosur a letter explaining that Cooper's request for a pardon based on innocence was so unusual that the governor would not consider it until the judicial process had been exhausted.
As a result, Slosur filed a motion in court for post-conviction relief in an effort to satisfy that condition.
Cooper, who had young children at the time of his arrest, has worked as a forklift operator since his release from prison.
"It feels like a 100-pound weight has been lifted off my chest," he said.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Tom Brown)