Indiana Supreme Court reprimands county prosecutor

Justices: Cooper made misleading, inflammatory comments about judge

The Johnson County prosecutor has been reprimanded by the Indiana Supreme Court, saying he made misleading and inflammatory comments about a judge.

Brad Cooper, who has been the elected prosecutor since 2009, was issued a public reprimand by the five justices after they reviewed recommendations and filings from the hearing officer, disciplinary commission and Cooper’s attorneys and found that Cooper committed professional misconduct, according to the order issued Friday by the court.

All the supreme court justices agreed with the decision and discipline, the order said.

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The discipline is rare for an elected prosecutor and stems from comments Cooper made to the media in 2014 regarding a northern Indiana judge who decided that convicted murderer Michael Dean Overstreet was not competent to be executed.

A public reprimand had been recommended by the judge who was appointed to oversee Cooper’s disciplinary hearing and the attorney for the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission. This is the resolution to a case that included an hours-long hearing in October in which local judges, attorneys and deputy prosecutors testified on Cooper’s behalf.

Cooper would only say this about the reprimand: “The ruling was an affirmation of what the hearing judge already decided. I have printed out the now official reprimand, put it in an 8.5” by 11” frame I bought at Big Lots and placed it next to the original Sentencing Order of Death which hangs on my office wall next to Kelly’s picture.”

The case regarding Cooper was filed in 2015 by the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission. St. Joseph County Superior Court Judge Jane Woodward Miller ruled that Overstreet, who was convicted of murdering 19-year-old Kelly Eckart in 1997 in Johnson County, should not be executed. The appeal case had been transferred to the northern Indiana court after Johnson County Superior Court 2 Judge Cynthia Emkes recused herself due to medical issues.

When the ruling was made that Overstreet would no longer face the death penalty, Cooper told the media: “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.”

Under the state’s professional rules of conduct for attorneys, “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 Indiana Supreme Court did not conduct a hearing on the matter, but was given the entire case, including the transcript of the October hearing and additional filings by the disciplinary commission and Cooper’s attorneys.

The court’s order summarized the facts of the case, including a characterization of Cooper’s comments about the judge.

“In that statement, (Cooper) indicated he was ‘suspicious’ of the transfer of the case to Judge Miller and then offered as purported support for that suspicion additional commentary that was false, misleading and inflammatory in nature,” Indiana Supreme Court acting Chief Justice Robert D. Rucker wrote in the court’s order.

“In considering the statement itself, and the surrounding circumstances in which it was made, we agree with the hearing officer that the statement attacked Judge Miller’s qualification or integrity and that (Cooper) made the statement with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity,” the order said.

Cooper has also been ordered to pay the costs of the proceeding, the order said.

The hearing officer had noted in its recommendation to the supreme court that Cooper had no prior disciplinary history, had apologized to Miller shortly after receiving the complaint, had been involved in the Overstreet case and supported Eckart’s family, that his comments were not as egregious as in past disciplinary cases involving other attorneys and that he was facing personal and emotional issues at the time.

David Griffith, the attorney for the disciplinary commission, had reached many of the same conclusions, but also raised concerns about Cooper’s state of mind as a factor that should be weighed as part of the disciplinary case, including Cooper’s behavior during a disciplinary hearing, where both sides presented their case. Griffith wrote that Cooper did not exhibit a calm demeanor and often had a tendency to evade answering questions or jump from one line of thought to another, the filing said.

Cooper has previously said that he wholly accepted the reprimand and had learned from the process.

Pull Quote

“I have printed out the now official reprimand, put it in an 8.5″ x 11″ frame I bought at Big Lots and placed it next to the original Sentencing Order of Death which hangs on my office wall next to Kelly’s picture.”

— Johnson County Prosecutor Brad Cooper, regarding a public reprimand the Indiana Supreme Court issued him

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Michele Holtkamp is editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at mholtkamp@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2774.