Prosecutor: Anger with system

The Johnson County prosecutor’s statements after a judge ruled a convicted murderer was not fit to be executed were not directed personally at the judge, and he did not violate professional rules of conduct, his attorneys said.

Prosecutor Brad Cooper is accused of violating professional rules of conduct for statements he made after a South Bend judge ruled in 2014 that Michael Dean Overstreet was not fit to be executed in the murder of Kelly Eckart. Cooper’s attorneys and an attorney for the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission both argued their cases in a Richmond courtroom Wednesday.

Now, Wayne County Superior Court Judge Charles Todd will allow at least 60 days for a transcript to be prepared and both sides to issue their final arguments before making a decision on whether Cooper violated the rule, which states “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.”

Cooper’s attorneys also said that Cooper had been through a period of personal struggles, including the death of his mother and two siblings and a coworker and a divorce, when he texted his comments to a reporter after the ruling was made.

The case centers on Cooper’s statement that:

“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.”

Cooper said his statement was directed at the decision to send the case to a court in South Bend after the local judge recused herself for personal health reasons. Cooper said he was angry since Eckart’s mother, Connie Sutton, could not afford to attend the four-day hearing that was more than two-and-a-half hours away.

“I thought she was getting a raw deal. I was mad my victim’s mother was being treated that way,” Cooper said. Cooper later used money seized in drug investigations to fund Sutton’s trip to the hearing.

He also said that he disagrees with the case law that says that offenders who are mentally ill should not be executed.

David Griffith, staff attorney for the state disciplinary commission, argued that the judge’s location should not have made a difference in her decision, and questioned whether Cooper believed St. Joseph County Superior Court Judge Jane Woodward Miller would use anything other than the facts of the case and the law to make her ruling.

Griffith and Todd also raised questions about an apology letter Cooper sent to Miller after she had filed the complaint with the commission.

In his letter, Cooper apologized for the comments directed at the judge and said he should not have aimed his frustration with the system at her, Todd said.

Cooper said he felt to properly apologize, he needed to apologize for what Miller had said offended her.

Cooper’s attorney, James Voyles, broke down each part of the statement the complaint was based upon, and pointed out that Cooper had never mentioned the judge by name and said his statement was not directed at her. And other parts of the statement about not executing Overstreet were his personal opinion.

“This man murdered this girl. He is still drawing a breath, she is not,” Cooper said.

Voyles also called multiple attorneys and judges from Johnson County to speak to Cooper’s character, including Johnson County Superior Court Judge Lance Hamner, Johnson County Circuit Court Judge Mark Loyd, defense attorneys Russell Johnson, Andrew Baldwin and Phil Wilson, deputy prosecutor Carrie Miles, Sutton and Stacy Uliana, whose son’s juvenile arrest was expunged by Cooper after the teen was wrongfully arrested in a bomb threat at Center Grove High School.

Each cited Cooper’s commitment to being truthful and ethical, his empathy for victims and the impacts his personal life had on him in the last several years.

They also spoke to the impacts the disciplinary case has had on him, since his integrity has been questioned, calling it hurtful.

Miles pointed to the audience of the courtroom, which included several other local attorneys and prosecutors, who had made their own decision to come to the hearing to support Cooper, she said.

The judge will now give the court 30 days to prepare a transcript for both sides to review, and prepare final arguments based on. He will give both sides at least 30 days once the transcript is available, and will take that into account for his decision in the case.

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Annie Goeller is managing editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at agoeller@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2718.