A Chicago man who spent more than eight years in prison for a wrongful conviction said Friday he's angry that his name wasn't cleared by Vice President Mike Pence during his time as Indiana governor.
Keith Cooper was surrounded by his wife, daughter, stepchildren, mother and other supporters as he told reporters that he was grateful to new Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, who granted his pardon request on Thursday.
Cooper, now 49, was sentenced to 40 years in prison after being convicted for a 1996 robbery in Elkhart, Indiana, during which a teenager was shot. He was released in 2006 after a co-defendant's conviction was overturned but the felony armed robbery conviction had remained on his record.
"I feel like a thousand pounds of weight just lifted off my chest," Cooper said.
His pardon request, which the Indiana Parole Board recommended be granted in 2014, received renewed attention last summer after Pence became now-President Donald Trump's running mate. Pence's general counsel notified Cooper's attorney in September that Cooper needed to first exhaust all his options in court for having the conviction overturned before a pardon would be considered.
Cooper said he was thankful Holcomb "had the heart to do what Pence couldn't do."
"He left me, he abandoned me," Cooper said of Pence. "But thanks to Eric Holcomb, I'm a free man now. I'm finally free. I got my name back. I'm Keith Cooper. Not the Keith Cooper with the DOC number 975234. I know that number better than my own (Social) Security."
A Pence spokesman didn't immediately return a message seeking comment Friday.
Holcomb, who was Pence's lieutenant governor, took office in early January when Pence's four-year term ended.
Cooper's attorney, Elliot Slosar, said Pence was callous in his handling of the matter.
"Gov. Pence deliberately ignored Keith Cooper's pardon petition because he knew that it would not be politically palatable for the presidential campaign," Slosar said.
The Indiana Court of Appeals overturned the conviction of Cooper's co-defendant in 2005, and Cooper was given the choice of being released with a felony record or facing a new trial before the same judge who had convicted him. He decided he wanted to be released so he could reunite with his wife and children, who were homeless at times during his incarceration.
Slosar said he expects to file a claim against Elkhart police soon seeking compensation over Cooper's arrest, but declined to give details.
Cooper's family described him as a caring man who dotes on his grandchildren and rises at 3:30 a.m. for his job as a factory forklift operator.
Cooper said his time behind bars was "a hard journey" for his family, noting that his son who's now 21 was just a 1-year-old when he was arrested.
"I walked to the store and never came back with their groceries," Cooper said.