"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Saturday, June 13, 2015

From death row at 16 to suicide at 45: the life and death of Paula Cooper

Paula Cooper
Paula Cooper
NEWS OF PAULA COOPER’S suicide spread quickly in Indiana, where her 2013 release had been a big event. She was once famous for being the youngest death row prisoner in the country: a girl condemned at 16 to the electric chair for the brutal stabbing death of a 77-year-old Bible school teacher named Ruth Pelke. Three other teenage girls took part in the 1985 crime — they came away with $10 and the elderly woman’s car — but Paula was described as the ringleader by her co-defendants. Only she was sent to death row.

Her sentence was controversial. It had only been 10 years since Gregg v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that restarted executions following a four-year moratorium — imposed partly over concerns that the death penalty was racially biased. It was hard to imagine a white child receiving such a harsh punishment, and many believed it was racially motivated. Others felt Paula was far too young to be sentenced to die. But in 1986, Indiana law said that defendants as young as 10 years old could be tried as adults, and thus face the death penalty. Soon thereafter, the Supreme Court struck down death sentences for kids who committed their crimes before age 16. But it would take almost 30 years for the Court to ban the death penalty for juveniles altogether, in 2005.

The Paula Cooper case became an international cause célèbre. Amnesty International campaigned for her, 2 million petitions poured into the Indiana Supreme Court, and Pope John Paul II sent an emissary from the Vatican, asking that her life be spared. But one of Paula’s earliest and most unlikely supporters was an Indiana steelworker named Bill Pelke — Ruth Pelke’s grandson. A young devout Christian and Vietnam veteran, Bill had seen his father scrubbing the blood from the walls and carpet in his grandmother’s house. Yet he soon came to believe that his Nana would not have wanted to see this young girl executed. He was particularly haunted by the memory of Paula Cooper’s own grandfather on the day she was sentenced to die. As he would later recount in a 2003 memoir, neither Paula’s mother or father attended the 1986 hearing, but her grandfather had been escorted out of the courtroom, wailing, “They are going to kill my baby!” Pelke later went to visit him and the two looked at photo albums of Paula and her sister, Rhonda. The girls had grown up amid harrowing abuse and neglect. They were beaten with electrical cords and had witnessed their father beat and rape their mother, Gloria. Once, Gloria told the girls they were going to see Jesus, then turned on the car in the garage until they passed out from carbon monoxide. Yet all three survived.

The more Bill learned about Paula, the more he was certain his grandmother would have forgiven her. He tried to visit her in prison, but was denied permission — it was against policy to allow convicted murderers to see members of their victim’s family. So Bill and Paula wrote letters. Their correspondence would last years. When 19-year-old Paula’s death sentence was commuted to 60 years in July 1989, Bill’s first words were, “Praise the Lord!” And by the time she was released on good behavior, on June 17, 2013, neither was the same person they had been in 1985. Paula was a grown women who had earned her GED, multiple degrees, and the support of prisoners and activists alike.

NOBODY THOUGHT Paula’s reentry would be easy. “My main concern is seeing her get settled and find a job,” Bill told USA Today on the eve of her release, declining further comment. He worried that press attention would make a challenging adjustment that much harder. Indeed, the day she left prison, cameras waited in the parking lot, so Paula was escorted out back, then taken to an undisclosed location. There were reports of death threats. “People were really ugly about it,” her longtime attorney, Monica Foster, recalled.

Traditionally, a person leaving prison in Indiana has been provided with bus fare and a check for $75. Paula had more support by comparison — the archbishop of Indianapolis helped her find a place to live — yet she was completely overwhelmed. She had never been an adult in the world — let alone in 2013.


Source: The Intercept, Liliana Segura, June 12, 2015

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