English professor helped push pardon to forefront

Regardless of who won Tuesday’s gubernatorial election, victory seems likely for a cause that English professor Jack Heller has embraced on behalf of a wrongfully convicted man.

In their final debate, Democrat John Gregg, Republican Eric Holcomb and Libertarian Rex Bell all said they are likely to act quickly to pardon Keith Cooper.

The next governor isn’t required legally to do so. But there is no doubt that Cooper, whose story Heller has helped elevate to fame, didn’t commit the armed robbery for which he served 10 years in prison.

The prosecutor said it was a terrible mistake. The crime’s victims say he didn’t do it. DNA evidence points to another man as the shooter. Two years ago, the state Parole Board unanimously called for his name to be cleared.

So Heller has been counting on what he calls “moral persuasion,” and that now to resonate with Gregg, Holcomb or Bell. It’s an argument that has failed with Vice President-elect Gov. Mike Pence, who is overseeing the transition of power to President-elect Donald Trump.

To back up: few knew of Cooper’s name until last year, when the Chicago Tribune reported on the legal limbo in which he still lingers. Some Indiana newspapers followed up the case, which is how Heller learned of it.

Heller said he was concerned about what he read.

In 1996, Cooper was arrested for an armed robbery in Elkhart County, based on the description he fit: that of a “tall, thin black man.” After he was convicted, the DNA evidence used against him was shown to be in error, and eyewitnesses recanted their statements they claimed police pressured them into making.

Now a forklift operator living outside of Chicago, Cooper has spent years trying to get the wrongful felony conviction in off his record.

But the case is legally complicated. In 2006, an Elkhart judge gave Cooper, who was still in prison at the time, two options as evidence of his innocence emerged.

He could pursue a new trial — a route that could take two years. Or he could choose immediate release from prison, with the conviction still on his record.

Cooper opted for the latter. Later, as he struggled to find work with a felony record, he had second thoughts and began seeking a pardon based on his innocence.

Pence has declined to act, saying through his attorney that Cooper must first exhaust all of his appeals options in court before he can consider a pardon.

Heller, on reading about the case in July, went searching for a petition to sign to add his name to what he thought would be a citizens’ call for justice. He couldn’t find one.

“So I started my own,” he said.

That online petition, on the Change.Org website, quickly gathered more than 110,000 signatures. It triggered a social media campaign, followed by more press attention, leading to the question being asked at that gubernatorial debate.

Heller’s interest in the matter is personal, though he’d never met Cooper when he launched the petition.

An English professor at the Christian-based Huntington University, Heller voluntarily teaches Shakespeare to inmates at the Pendleton Correctional Facility. He said he’s found that staging tragedies, with inmates playing the roles, has a rehabilitative effect.

“They learn to express themselves in ways less harmful than what they’ve used before in the ways that got them to where they are,” he said. “They put on characters and use those characters to re-examine themselves.”

In spending time in the prison, Heller said he saw how isolating the life behind bars can be.

“It’s not how anyone should have to live, but even less so for someone for whom it’s undeserved,” he said.

Heller once held out hope that Pence would pardon Cooper, as an act of the restorative justice for which the state Constitution calls.

That hope was based in part on Pence’s oft-repeated profession that his Christian faith comes before politics — and the forgiveness he’s extended to Trump for his admitted transgressions.

Heller’s hopes have dimmed for Pence, but he said he’ll continue to press the governor till the day he leaves office.

“I trust Mr. Cooper will eventually be pardoned,” he said, noting the promises from the gubernatorial candidates. “But Gov. Pence will have to come back to Indiana after the election, and this is an issue he should face when he does.”

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI newspapers.