Paula Cooper, 43, left prison Monday morning, decades after she became America’s youngest resident of death row at age 16. She had confessed to the 1985 murder of Bible studies teacher Ruth Pelke, 78, in Gary, Ind. Cooper’s death sentence was commuted in 1989, after widespread appeals for mercy.
“An appeal from Pope John Paul II, an international campaign to overturn the death sentence and legal challenges helped to spare Cooper’s life,” reports The Indianapolis Star. “The Indiana Supreme Court commuted the death sentence in 1989 and sent her to prison for 60 years. She earned credits for an early release.”
Cooper admitted to killing Pelke as part of a robbery in which she and three other teenage girls went to Pelke’s house. Cooper, who was 15 at the time of the murder, said that she used a kitchen knife to cut Pelke more than 30 times. The other girls in the case have already been released from prison.
The case shocked the public, and Cooper’s death sentence drew protests and calls to spare her life. One of her supporters was Bill Pelke, a grandson of Ruth Pelke. He tells the AP that his grandmother would have been “appalled” by the thought of a young girl being executed.
Over the years, Pelke became friends with Cooper during her prison sentence. And yesterday, Pelke, who now lives in Alaska but has reportedly traveled to Indiana for Cooper’s release, told CNN that he plans to take her shopping when he meets with her.
Saying that Cooper is supposed to call him, Pelke tells CNN, “I told her whenever she got out, I’d treat her. I have a friend who would like to buy her an outfit, and I want to buy her a computer.”
The Star reports that Cooper has worked to rehabilitate herself, after some rough years in the first half of her prison sentence.
“I was very bitter and angry, so I was in a lot of trouble. I hated it. But I learned to adapt eventually,” Cooper told The Star in 2004. “I decided for myself it was time to really sit down and buckle down and get it, because it wasn’t gonna always be there.”
Cooper took classes in prison and earned her bachelor’s degree. “She also helped train dogs as companions for the disabled and, since 2011, has worked as a tutor,” the paper says.
In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that convicted killers could not be executed in cases where they committed the crime before they were 16. In 2005, the court abolished capital punishment for people under the age of 18, saying that such executions “violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment,” as NPR’s Nina Totenberg reported.
Back in 1985, Indiana state law allowed for the execution of killers who were age 10 and over. The former prosecutor who worked on Cooper’s case, attorney Jack Crawford, says he is now against the death penalty.
“When we asked for it, it was controversial because she was so young,” Crawford tells The Star. “But my feeling was that, if the law allowed for imposition of the death sentence on a teenager, this was the case because of the facts. I couldn’t imagine a worse set of facts for a defendant. But if it was ever justified, this was the time it was probably justified.”
Source: wuft.org, June 18, 2013
Paula Cooper leaves death row for freedom
Paula Cooper was 16 when she was sentenced to death for killing an elderly Bible study teacher.
That made the Gary, Ind., teen the youngest person ever in the state to face the death penalty. At the time in 1986, she also was the youngest death row inmate in the United States.
To many, Cooper was a monster beyond rehabilitation. But others saw her as a victim of an abusive childhood and racist criminal justice system.
A legal challenge and international campaign to overturn her death sentence, which included an appeal from Pope John Paul II, saved Cooper's life.
The Indiana Supreme Court commuted the death sentence in 1989 and sent her to prison for 60 years. For the past 24 years, she has lived in relative obscurity.
Cooper was 15 when she was charged with murder in the stabbing of 78-year-old Ruth Pelke during a robbery. 3 other co-defendants - also teenage girls at the time - went to prison but have been released.
Where Cooper will go and what she plans to do remain unclear. She did not respond to an interview request from The Indianapolis Star.
What is known is that she will leave prison with at least $75, a new outfit provided by the state and a bachelor's degree, according to DOC spokesman Douglas Garrison.
"People still know about this case," said Indianapolis attorney Jack Crawford, who was the prosecutor when Cooper was charged and convicted. "The name Paula Cooper still resonates, and she's going to attract some attention when she is released."
That's Bill Pelke's fear. A grandson of the murder victim, Pelke has forgiven and befriended Cooper. He declined to talk about her release.
"My main concern," he said, "is seeing her get settled and find a job."
Pelke said media coverage could make the already hard task of building a new life even more difficult.
Cooper's sister, Rhonda Labroi, said she hopes people look past the frozen-in-time image of her younger sister as a teenage killer.
"She's a very different person," Labroi said. "She is a lot more educated and older and wiser now. I think things will be different." Cooper, she added, "has paid her price."
"There are 2nd chances," Labroi said. "It seems like God has given her another chance. I think if people give her a 2nd chance, she'll do fine."
In a 2004 interview with The Star, Cooper expressed remorse for her actions and a desire to turn around her life.
"Everybody has a responsibility to do right or wrong, and if you do wrong, you should be punished," she said. "Rehabilitation comes from you. If you're not ready to be rehabilitated, you won't be."
Jack Crawford, who was the prosecutor when Cooper was charged and convicted, said he has come to oppose the death penalty but thought it was appropriate at the time of Pelke's murder. Indiana law then allowed prosecutors to seek the death penalty for those as young as 10 - and he did.
The case and reaction to the death sentence, Crawford said, attracted more scrutiny and notoriety than any other in his 12 years as a prosecutor in Lake County.
"It got a lot of attention for a lot of different reasons: She's a female, she's 15 years old, the ferocity of the killing, the white-black thing," said Crawford.
"It was 4 teenage girls on their lunch break from high school going over and committing a horrific crime. It was just incredible. It was so amazing that these girls could have killed so dispassionately and viciously."
The girls, Crawford said, "planned to kill (Pelke) from the get-go." Cooper, who was identified as the ringleader in the murder-robbery, brought a 12-inch butcher knife when she and 3 friends went to Pelke's home on May 25, 1985. Pelke welcomed the teens into her home after the girls said they were interested in Bible study lessons.
One of the teens then hit Pelke on the head with a vase, knocking her to the ground.
"Paula Cooper got on top of her and kept saying to her, and this is her own admission, 'Where's the money, bitch?'" Crawford said.
When Pelke responded that she didn't have any money, Crawford said Cooper "started torturing her, slicing her with the butcher knife across her chest."
As Pelke lay on the floor, Crawford said the investigation revealed, "she was saying the Lord's Prayer as she died."
Cooper and the 3 other teen girls - Denise Thomas, 14, Karen Corder, 16, and April Beverly, 15 - fled with about $10 and Pelke's car. The were arrested days later, Crawford said, after bragging about the killing.
An autopsy revealed Pelke had been stabbed more than 30 times, with one strike going through her chest and leaving a mark in the wooden floor beneath her body.
Beverly turned state's witness, cooperating with police and prosecutors, and was sentenced to 25 years for robbery. She was released from prison in 1999.
Reached at her home in Colorado, Beverly hung up when asked about the case.
Thomas was convicted of murder and sentenced to 35 years. She was released in 2003. Corder also was convicted of murder and sentenced to 60 years. She was released in 2008. The Star was unable to locate them.
When it came time to go to court, Cooper pleaded guilty to the murder charge.
Kevin Relphorde, who was her public defender, said they hoped "the guilty plea and her remorse" would be considered mitigating factors that might save Cooper from the death penalty.
"I guess," he said, "the judge felt as if he had no choice."
That's the way Crawford recalled it, too.
At the sentencing, Crawford and Relphorde said, Lake County Judge James Kimbrough gave a long explanation of why he opposed the death penalty. Then he dropped the bomb: He was sentencing Cooper to death.
That's when attention generated by the case shifted. No longer was the focus on a grisly murder committed by a group of teen girls. Now, the outcry was over a 16-year-old being sentenced to death.
Cooper was only the 4th woman in Indiana to receive the death penalty and that Indiana, however, has never executed a woman.
Crawford remembers the shift in public reaction. You don't forget, he explained, when an emissary from the pope shows up at your office.
Amnesty International also became involved, and the case took on a life of its own in Europe, particularly in Italy.
Letters and petitions signed by death penalty opponents flooded the prosecutor's office and, later, the Indiana Supreme Court.
An Indiana Historical Society background sheet on items in its collection related to the case notes: "Appeals were made to the Indiana Supreme Court, which received 2 million signatures; to Governor Robert Orr, who received an appeal from the pope in September 1987; and to the United Nations, which received a million signatures."
The uproar came as the U.S. Supreme Court was wrestling with the issue of sentencing teens to death. In 1988, the high court ruled it was unconstitutional to execute anyone who was younger than 16 at the time they committed a crime.
The following year, Indiana lawmakers upped the minimum age from 10 to 16.
Indiana raised its minimum age to 18 in 2002. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to execute anyone younger than 18.
Cooper made efforts in prison to turn around her life but also had numerous scrapes with authorities.
Her conduct seemed to improve with time after a low point in 1995, when she was sentenced to 3 years of solitary confinement for assaulting a prison guard.
In all, DOC records show she was cited 23 times for rules violations, including 10 low-level violations - unruly conduct, being in an unauthorized area and sexual contact - since 2005.
"I was very bitter and angry, so I was in a lot of trouble. I hated it. But I learned to adapt eventually," she said in the 2004 interview. "I decided for myself it was time to really sit down and buckle down and get it, because it wasn't gonna always be there."
She earned her GED, then a vocational degree and, in 2001, a bachelor's degree. She also helped train dogs as companions for the disabled and, since 2011, has worked as a tutor.
Crawford, the former prosecutor who led the push for Cooper's execution, said he wishes her well as she enters a new chapter of her life.
"She has served her time, and perhaps she can make some contributions to society," he said. "I hope she continues to try to rehabilitate herself and make some amends for the crime she committed some 30 years ago."
Source: USA Today, June 17, 2013