SOUTH BEND, Ind. (CN) - The Indiana man who was granted the first-ever innocence pardon from the state’s governor wants compensation for the 10 years he spent in prison for an armed robbery he didn’t commit.
Keith Cooper, represented by attorneys from Loevy & Loevy in Chicago, filed a lawsuit Monday in South Bend federal court against the city of Elkhart and four police officers, claiming they fabricated evidence that led to his wrongful conviction. He seeks punitive damages for his time spent incarcerated.
“The eyewitnesses have since come forward, one by one, and revealed the extent of the defendants’ misdeeds while acknowledging that Mr. Cooper was not the person that robbed and shot at them on October 29, 1996,” the complaint states. “DNA evidence bolsters their story and conclusively illustrates that Mr. Cooper is innocent and had no involvement in the armed-robbery and attempted murder of Michael Kershner.”
The 1996 crime occurred while Kershner was watching a movie in his family’s apartment with his girlfriend, friend, mother and mother’s boyfriend. Around 9:30 p.m., Kershner answered a knock at the door.
“When Mr. Kershner opened the door, two African-American males, one short and one tall, forced their way into the apartment. Both were armed with handguns. The intruders demanded money, drugs, and asked for ‘Shell,’” according to Cooper’s complaint.
After some scuffling, the tall assailant shot Kershner in the hip and then both left with a bag of quarters, a stun gun and Kershner’s SKS rifle. Following multiple surgeries, Kershner survived.
Detective Tom Cutler assigned Detective Steve Rezutko as lead investigator in the case. Both men are named as defendants in Monday’s lawsuit.
According to the complaint, prior to being assigned to the investigation, Rezutko had been demoted within Elkhart’s detective bureau and was not permitted to work on homicide cases unless there were “serious manpower shortages.”
“According to defendant Rezutko’s former partner and supervisor, Larry Towns, the reason Detective Rezutko was removed from the investigation of homicide cases was due to his poor investigative work, his habit of rushing to judgment, his frequent manipulation of evidence, and his use of suggestive photo line-ups,” the lawsuit states.
Within 48 hours of the shooting, Rezutko had various witnesses identify Christopher Parish as the short, non-shooter intruder.
Rezutko allegedly coerced and pressured the witnesses to falsely identify Parish, used highly suggestive photo arrays and prepared false witness statements for them.
The eyewitnesses all identified Parish as the non-shooter at the criminal trial in 1998, but his conviction was later vacated in 2005.
A few months after the shooting, Cooper says he was walking home with groceries when police arrested him because a woman reported that a “tall African-American” man attempted to snatch her purse earlier that day. He claims police conducted an “unduly suggestive” show-up and drove him to the location of the victim who falsely identified him through the car window.
While awaiting trial for the purse-snatching allegation, Rezutko visited Cooper at the jail and “threatened to frame Mr. Cooper for the robbery and attempted murder of Kershner unless he pleaded guilty to purse snatching,” the lawsuit states.