INDIANAPOLIS — A woman who was sentenced to death at age 16 for taking part in the torture and murder of a 78-year-old bible studies teacher was released from an Indiana prison Monday after growing to middle age behind bars.
Paula Cooper, whose 1986 death sentence enraged human rights activists and drew a plea for clemency from Pope John Paul II, left the state prison quietly in a state-owned van and wearing donated clothing, Department of Correction spokesman Doug Garrison said.
As is customary, the prison, about 60 miles west of Indianapolis, gave the now-43-year-old woman $75 to help her make a fresh start.
When asked where Cooper was being taken, Garrison said, “We have something arranged but that’s not something I can talk about.”
Cooper was 15 years old when she used a butcher’s knife to cut Ruth Pelke 33 times during a robbery in Gary that ended in Pelke’s death. Her three companions — one only 14 —received lighter sentences, but Cooper confessed to the killing and was sentenced to death by a judge who opposed capital punishment, said former prosecutor Jack Crawford, who sought the death penalty for Cooper. Crawford is now a defense lawyer in Indianapolis and no longer supports capital punishment.
“She sat on her, slicing her,” Crawford said. “This was a torture crime.”
The following year, Cooper became the country’s youngest death row inmate.
The sentencing of a 16-year-old to death enraged human rights activists in the U.S. and Europe. Pope John Paul II urged that Cooper be granted clemency in 1987, and in 1988 a priest brought a petition to Indianapolis with more than 2 million signatures protesting Cooper’s sentence.
“There were like protests, ‘Save Paula Cooper,’ even in Europe it was a rallying cry,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. “Her case really became a symbol of the death penalty.”
Two years after Cooper was sentenced to die, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in an unrelated case that the execution of young people who were under 16 at the time they committed an offense was cruel and unusual punishment and was thus unconstitutional. Indiana legislators then passed a state law raising the minimum age limit for execution from 10 years to 16, and in 1988, the state’s high court set Cooper’s death sentence aside and ordered her to serve 60 years in prison.
“Was justice done? Twenty-four years is a long time, but I’m not sure,” Crawford said.
Ruth Pelke’s grandson, Bill Pelke, has organized opposition to the death penalty since about two years after her murder. His grandmother, he said, would have been “appalled” at a young girl being sentenced to die.
Pelke, who now lives in Anchorage, Alaska, was in Indiana Monday for Cooper’s release, but missed it. He said he expects Cooper to phone him sometime in the next few days.
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to execute anyone who is younger than 18 years when they commit an offense.
Linley E. Pearson, who was Indiana’s attorney general when Cooper appealed to the state Supreme Court, said research now shows that the human brain doesn’t fully mature until age 24.
“So kids can do a lot of things they wouldn’t do if they were an adult,” Pearson said.
Cooper’s sentence was reduced due to her behavior in prison, where she earned a bachelor’s degree. She will remain on parole for a few years, Garrison said.
“We’re just wanting her to be successful, that’s all,” he said. “She needs to get back to living.”