The Johnson County prosecutor could face discipline by a state commission over comments he made after a judge found a man convicted of murder incompetent to be executed.
A complaint filed against Prosecutor Brad Cooper said he violated one of the state’s rules of professional conduct for attorneys and should be disciplined for professional misconduct, according to the filing with the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission.
The state board is appointed by the Indiana Supreme Court and includes seven lawyers and two non-lawyers, and also has a staff to investigate and prosecute cases.
The complaint stems from comments Cooper made to the media in 2014 about an appeal filed by Michael Dean Overstreet, who was convicted of murdering Franklin College student Kelly Eckart in 1997. Overstreet’s attorneys argued he was not competent to be executed, and a South Bend judge agreed.
Cooper had previously served as deputy prosecutor during Overstreet’s trial and sentencing and was present for the search when Eckart’s body was found. He was not involved in the appeal of Overstreet’s sentence in 2014, according to the disciplinary complaint file.
After the judge ruled that Overstreet was not competent to be executed, Cooper told two media outlets that he disagreed with the judge’s decision, and called the judge distant and not accountable to local residents, according to the complaint. The appeal case had been moved to South Bend after Johnson County Superior Court 2 Judge Cynthia Emkes recused herself due to health issues.
According to the complaint, Cooper told one media outlet: “I was angry and suspicious when this case was sent to a distant judge who is not accountable to the Johnson County citizenry or a grieving mother who couldn’t even afford to drive up for the hearing. The idea that this convicted murdering monster is too sick to be executed is nothing short of outrageous and is an injustice to the victim, her mother, the jury and the hundreds of people who worked to convict this animal.”
And he told another media outlet: “Once this case got shipped to a distant judge who is not beholden to the voters and citizens of Johnson County, it didn’t surprise me that she didn’t want to create the headache for herself by keeping with this case … I think the idea that this rapist murderer is basically too sick to be executed is ridiculous.”
According to the complaint, those statements violated the rule for professional conduct for attorneys that says: “a lawyer shall not make a statement that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge.”
The judge in the case, St. Joseph County Judge Jane Woodward Miller, filed the complaint and said the statements Cooper made were untrue, Cooper said in an email. The complaint did not say who filed it.
Cooper disagrees, he said in the email.
Cooper said he made the comments on behalf of Eckart, who cannot speak for herself, and will continue to advocate for Eckart and her family. For example, he went to the county and got approval to spend $3,400 from a fund that collects money seized in drug investigations to pay for Eckart’s mother to travel and stay in South Bend and attend Overstreet’s hearings, Cooper said.
“I am proud of the work I did on the Overstreet trial and, while I was not involved in the Overstreet appeal, I will continue to advocate for Kelly and her family until justice is finally served,” Cooper said in an email.
In his response to the complaint, Cooper and his attorneys, James Voyles and Jennifer Lukemeyer, said he responded emotionally to a question from a reporter over text message, according to the filing.
Cooper also denies violating the rules of professional conduct, his response said.
Complaints go through hearings overseen by a judicial officer. The case is scheduled for a final hearing on Oct. 5, according to court records.