Indiana woman condemned for killing at 15 released from prison - 13 WTHR Indianapolis

Indiana woman condemned for killing at 15 released from prison

Paula Cooper Paula Cooper
Bill Pelke Bill Pelke
Ruth Pelke (photo courtesy Indy Star) Ruth Pelke (photo courtesy Indy Star)

An Indiana woman whose death sentence for a killing when she was 15 years old helped change the way juveniles are treated by courts across the country was released from prison on Monday.

Forty-three-year-old Paula Cooper was freed Monday from a state prison in Rockville in western Indiana.

Cooper was sentenced to die in Indiana's electric chair after she was convicted in the 1985 stabbing death of a 78-year-old Bible school teacher in Gary.

At the time of the incident in 1986, Paula Cooper was the youngest death row inmate in the US at age 16. She remained on death row for the crime until state legislators intervened and passed a law raising Indiana's minimum age limit for execution from 10 to 16.

Her death sentence fueled international protests, with Pope John Paul II weighing in. Over the years since, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled it unconstitutional to execute anyone under age 18 or to sentence them to life without parole.

In 1988, the Indiana Supreme Court set Cooper's death sentence aside and ordered a 60-year sentence.

There's no doubt what Paula Cooper did was horrific. Just 15 years old, she and three other teens showed up at 78-year-old Ruth Pelke's house in Gary, telling the Bible school teacher they were interested in Bible lessons. Cooper then stabbed the elderly woman more than 30 times. The girls stole her car and made off with $10.

In an interview in 1990, Paula Cooper explained her violence: "My environment was abuse every day. So this is what learned. This was what I was used to getting abused and then I eventually turned into the abuser."

During her time in prison, Paula Cooper got in trouble dozens of times but eventually turned to education, achieving a bachelor's degree.

Cooper was befriended by an unlikely person. Ruth Pelke's grandson has made the trip from Alaska to Indiana this week to see Cooper and to remind her that he's forgiven her for murdering his grandmother.

"She's not the same person she was when she was 15 years old. She's very remorseful for what she did. She knows she took a valuable thing from society. She knows it's something she'll have to live with for the rest of her life," said Bill Pelke.

"I'm convinced revenge is never, ever the answer. The answer is love and compassion for all humanity and I'm a strong believer in forgiveness," he added.

Rhonda LaBroi, Cooper's sister, released this statement on behalf of her family:

"Paula has worked hard to change her life in the decades since the crime. She entered prison as a very troubled teenager and is leaving a reformed woman. We are proud of how much she's grown and she has all of our support as she starts this second chance at life. As always, our sincerest thoughts and prayers go out to the Pelke family."

As for Bill Pelke, he says forgiving Cooper has meant he can go on with his life - and remember his grandmother.

 "Once my heart was touched with compassion, and forgiveness took place, I knew when I thought about my grandmother again I would no longer envision how she died but how she lived," said Pelke.

Pelke offered to take Cooper shopping to help get her started on her life outside prison. 

"It is very important to me that she is successful upon her release. I want to do what I can to help her be successful," he said.

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