June 17th marked the day that the youngest woman on death row walked through the gates of Rockville Correctional Facility in Indiana as a free woman. Usually when one hears of a story about a freed death row prisoner, it is because they were exonerated of their crime, as a result of being innocent all along. This story, however, is a little different.
Paula Cooper, a carefree 15 year old, devised a sophomoric plan to rob a local bible study teacher in Gary, Ind. on a balmy spring day in 1986. That mischievous thievery turned into grisly murder when Ruth Pelke turned up dead, with cuts on her legs and arms, and 33 stab wounds to the abdomen. In the end, Cooper and her friends left with $10 and Pelke’s old Buick.
Cooper ended up paying for that deadly decision with 28 years of her life, and the threat to be put to death by her home state. This caused a nationwide outrage among U.S. citizens, calling the death ruling “barbaric” and “racist.” After a petition written by Pope John Paul II garnered over 2 million signatures, the death penalty was overturned, and the teenager was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
This, however, soon changed after she received a most unlikely ally who vouched for her character. The victim’s grandson, Bill Pelke, sought redemption and forgiveness a short three months after Cooper was sentenced to death for the heinous crime. He relied on his faith in God and the belief system that his religious grandmother instilled in him to grant Cooper his pardon.
“I became convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that my grandmother would have had love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family,” Pelke told CNN. “I felt she wanted someone in my family to have that same sort of love and compassion. I didn’t have any but was so convinced that’s what she would have wanted, I begged God to give me love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family and do that on behalf of my grandmother.
Since her death sentence and ultimate re-sentencing, the pair have kept in touch sporadically, and have learned much from each other. Pelke goes on to say:
“She would take it back in a heartbeat if she could, but she knows she has to live with it for the rest of her life … She knows she took something valuable out of society. She wants to try to give back. She wants to to help work with other young people to avoid the pitfalls that she fell into. She wants to try to give back to society.”
Paula has earned a degree in humanities with a concentration in psychology from Marin University, and hopes to utilize it in order to deter young delinquents from following in the same path she took some three decades ago.