DULUTH — Rummaging through his recently deceased brother's vehicle last July in Duluth's East Hillside neighborhood, Steven Cooper found a pistol.

Cooper, a 31-year-old felon who had been convicted of a violent crime as a teenager, knew he wasn't supposed to possess a gun. So, he called his parole officer to turn it in, he said Thursday at a news conference on the steps of the St. Louis County Courthouse.

"I was honest from the start," he said. "By doing the right thing, I am being punished."

Cooper was arrested and then charged with felony possession of a firearm by the St. Louis County Attorney's Office. He faces a return to prison for a minimum of five years.

The Duluth NAACP is calling on St. Louis County Attorney Kim Maki to drop the charges, alleging he's being treated "unreasonably harshly" because he is Black.

Duluth NAACP President Classie Dudley said the charge sends a message to the community and to law enforcement working to keep guns off of streets.

"What this tells me is if you have an unregistered gun or if you are someone who has a gun that shouldn't be in your possession, don't turn it in," she said.

In an unusual move, the St. Louis County Attorney's Office released a lengthy statement about the case shortly after the news conference concluded.

The office stands by its charging decision based on initial evidence, the statement said, and with the investigation incomplete, it would be "premature to take action regarding the outcome of this case."

"We remain open to whatever options are warranted when the investigation is completed. We will not, however, make legal decisions based upon community pressure or false and unfounded allegations of racism in charging decisions," it said.

In 2006, when Cooper had just turned 15, he shot two convenience store clerks in their backs as he robbed a Duluth store. According to the Duluth News Tribune, both victims survived, but suffered collapsed lungs. Cooper was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was released after serving 13.5 years.

The criminal complaint from the July incident says Cooper told his parole officer about finding the pistol and some ammunition among things left behind by his brother, who died the previous April. He had wrapped the gun in a sweatshirt and put it in a secure place inside his apartment building before calling the parole officer, who notified police.

An excerpt of police body camera footage released by the NAACP shows the responding officer telling Cooper, handcuffed in the back of a squad car, that he did "the right thing," but he shouldn't have touched the gun. The officer also told Cooper that his honesty about the situation "is probably going to go a long way."

Dudley questioned why the County Attorney's Office went forward with charges when the Minnesota Department of Corrections opted against sending Cooper back to prison.

"It would have been safer for him personally to throw [the gun] in the ditch or give it to someone else," she said.

Cooper, who now lives in St. Louis Park, said he was placed on an on-call status for his job building tanks for the federal government following the new charge. He had to pawn his possessions to post bail in July. The prospect of returning to prison triggers fear and PTSD from his years spent there, and the trust in the justice system he emerged with upon release has "completely disappeared," he said.

"I have no faith in the system," Cooper said.

The case was charged by Tony Rubin, son of former St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin. Tony Rubin was hired by his father controversially in 2019 over more experienced prosecutors, the Duluth News Tribune reported then.

Cooper's next hearing is May 12. The County Attorney's Office said it expects the investigation to be complete by the end of April.