In 1986, at just 16-years-old, Paula Cooper was sentenced to death after she confessed to taking part in the robbing and of killing Ruth Pelke, a 78-year-old bible studies teacher, in Indianapolis, Indiana. Cooper stabbed Pelke 33 times with a large butcher knife, and ended up with $10 and Pelke’s old car from the robbery. She was 15 when she committed the crime that would land her on death row, making her the youngest death row inmate in the United States.
Cooper’s sentence attracted the attention of human rights activists in both the U.S. and Europe, with prominent figures like Pope John Paul II speaking out against the decision to put her to death. Ruth Pelke’s grandson, Bill Pelke, also opposed the death penalty for the teenager, and helped organize efforts to convince the court to change the decision.
“My grandmother would have been appalled she was on death row and that there was so much hate and anger and desire for her to die. I was convinced my grandmother would have had love and compassion for Paula and her family,” he said in a telephone interview with the Guardian. Belke, who currently lives in Anchorage, Alaska, runs the Forgiveness Project, an organization that “uses storytelling to explore how ideas around forgiveness, reconciliation and conflict resolution can be used to impact positively on people’s lives, through the personal testimonies of both victims and perpetrators of crime and violence.”
Two years after Cooper’s death sentence, the United States Supreme Court ruled that individuals who were under the age of 16 when they committed their crime could not be sentenced to death. After the state of Indiana raised the minimum of age to be sentenced to the death penalty from 10 to 16 years of age, Paula Cooper’s sentence was set aside and she was instead ordered to serve 60 years. She was released on parole in June of 2013, for good behavior after serving 28 years in prison. Bill Pelke visited Cooper in prison on multiple occasions and hoped to counsel her after her release.
“I’m hoping we’ll get together for a meal and do some shopping. I have a friend who wants to buy her a couple of outfits,” Pelke told ABCNews.com, which reported Cooper’s release.
Though reports about Cooper’s 2013 release seemed to indicate her intentions to get her life back on track, Indianapolis police state that Cooper was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in her home in Indianapolis earlier this week.
“I have no idea what was going on in her life. I thought she was doing well from everything I had heard,” Bill Pelke told the Guardian upon hearing of Cooper’s death. “I had hoped she would travel with us. She had always told me she wanted to help young people to avoid the pitfalls that she had fallen into. She said she knew she had done something terrible to society and she wanted to give back.”