Paula Cooper, who was 15 years old at the time of her crime, and the youngest person ever sentenced to death in Indiana, will be released from prison on June 17, twenty-seven years after her conviction for the murder of 78-year-old Ruth Pelke. Her case received international attention, sparking a campaign that led to the commutation of her death sentence to 60 years in prison. An appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court received over 2 million signatures from around the world. Pope John Paul II asked that Cooper’s sentence be reduced. Bill Pelke, the grandson of Ruth Pelke, forgave and befriended Cooper and wrote a book, Journey of Hope…From Violence to Healing, about his experience with the case.
Pelke also founded Journey of Hope, an organization led by murder victims’ family members that conducts speaking tours on alternatives to the death penalty, with an emphasis on compassion and forgiveness. He has advocated for Cooper’s release and recently reflected, “I knew my grandmother would not want [her] grandfather to have to go through what [my] grandfather had to go through, to see a granddaughter that he loved strapped to the electric chair and have volts of electricity put to her until she was dead.” In a 2004 interview with the Indianapolis Star, Cooper expressed remorse for her crime, saying, “Everybody has a responsibility to do right or wrong, and if you do wrong, you should be punished. Rehabilitation comes from you. If you’re not ready to be rehabilitated, you won’t be.” During her time in prison, Cooper earned a college degree, trained assistance dogs, and tutored other prisoners. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court held that states could not mandate the death penalty for those under the age of 16 at the time of their crime, and in 2005, the Court barred the death penalty for all juvenile offenders.
(T. Evans, “Ind. woman sentenced to death at 16 to leave prison,” USA Today, June 16, 2013; M. Edge, “Murder Victim’s Grandson Helps Free Assailant,” KTVA, May 23, 2013). See Juveniles and Victims.