An Indiana woman put on death row at age 16 for killing an elderly Bible school teacher was scheduled to be released yesterday after serving a prison term that was shortened after the state Supreme Court intervened.
Paula Cooper’s death sentence at such a young age sparked international protests and a plea for clemency from Pope John Paul II. Now 43 years old, Cooper is being given a second chance at her life.
Cooper was 15 when she and three other teenage girls showed up at Ruth Pelke’s house on May 14, 1985, with plans of robbing the 78-year-old Bible school teacher. Pelke let Cooper and two of the teen’s companions into her Gary, Indiana, home after they told her they were interested in Bible lessons.
As the fourth teen waited outside as a lookout, Cooper stabbed Pelke 33 times with a butcher knife. Then she and the other girls ransacked the house. The four girls fled with Pelke’s car and US$10.
Cooper’s three accomplices were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 25 to 60 years. However, Cooper, who confessed to Pelke’s slaying, was convicted of murder and sentenced to die. At the time, she was the youngest death row inmate in the US.
Some people believed Cooper deserved to die, but the punishment enraged human rights activists and death penalty opponents around the world, including those who viewed the teen as a victim of a racist criminal justice system.
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.
The Indiana Supreme Court set Cooper’s death sentence aside in 1988 and ordered her to serve 60 years in prison after state lawmakers passed a law raising Indiana’s minimum age limit for execution from 10 to 16. Since then, the US Supreme Court has found it unconstitutional to execute anyone younger than 18.
Cooper’s sister, Rhonda Labroi, said she hoped people would see Paula as more than a killer. After getting in trouble 23 times during her time in prison, Cooper turned to education, earning a bachelor’s degree in 2001.
“She was just a child at the time that happened, and now she is an adult and people should wait and see and give her a chance,” Labroi said. “Give her an opportunity. Maybe she’ll do some wonderful things for children who are growing up and aren’t so fortunate, like she was.”
“There are second chances,” she said. “It seems like God has given her another chance. I think if people give her a second chance, she’ll do fine.”