Paula Cooper, who was once the youngest ever death-row inmate, has been found dead, apparently from suicide, Indianapolis police reported. The convicted murderer is thought to have committed suicide by gun outside a residential building in the northwest side of Indianapolis. She had been released from prison about two years ago, and was 45 at the time of her death.
Cooper was 16 when she was sentenced to death in 1986 following her admission to the murder of Ruth Pelke, a 78-year-old Bible Studies teacher. Cooper was 15 at the time of the murder, which occurred as the result of a robbery in which she took part, along with three other girls, Karen Corder, aged 16, April Beverly, aged 15, and Denise Thompson, aged 14. Jack Crawford, the Indianapolis attorney who was the prosecutor at the time, recounted the incident and said that the girls had planned on killing the elderly teacher from the start.
The girls approached Pelke in her home, telling her they were interested in studying the Bible with her. After the Gary Bible instructor let them in, one of the teens struck her on the head with a vase, causing Pelke to fall to the floor. Cooper, by her own admission, then threatened Pelke by climbing atop her and demanding money from her. After Pelke told her she did not have money, Cooper began attacking and torturing her, slicing her across the chest multiple times with the butcher knife. After fleeing with the car and the $10, the four girls were found the next day and arrested after reportedly bragging about the killing.
Beverly cooperated with the authorities and received a 25-year prison sentence. After she was released in 1999, reporters attempted to reach her by phone to ask her about the case, and Beverly hung up. Thomas was sentenced to 35 years for murder and released in 2003. Corder received a 60-year sentence and was released in 2008. The IndyStar reported that aside from Cooper, they were unable to reach the three girls who cooperated in the crime.
Despite the fact that Cooper had committed what was classified as a capital crime, a campaign opposing her death sentence was organized by human rights activists and led by none other than Bill Pelke, grandson of the murdered victim. In fact, while Cooper was serving her sentence in prison, Pelke had visited her several times, with the intention of getting her the help and she needed. He said it was what his grandmother would have wanted.
Meanwhile, Cooper’s death sentence, in addition to her being the youngest inmate ever to stand on death row, had drawn so much ire and outrage that Pope John Paul II pleaded for clemency for the inmate, who recently died due to possible suicide. The protests, which were held in both Europe and North America, were so successful that two years following the sentence, when a priest delivered the petition with over 2 million signatures, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a new ruling stating that youths who are under 16 at the time they commit a capital offense can not be given a death sentence. The new law also stated that issuing the death penalty to someone so young was cruel and unconstitutional.
Later, Indiana lawmakers passed a law raising the minimum age for someone to be given the death penalty from 10 to 16 years. In 1988, the high court of the state commuted Cooper’s death sentence in favor of a 60-year sentence. While serving in prison, she managed to earn a bachelor’s degree and her prison sentence was reduced for good behavior. After serving 28 years behind bars, she was released on parole on June 17, 2013.
Pelke said he was heartbroken to learn about the death of Cooper, apparently from suicide, who was at one time the youngest inmate to serve on death row. He had last spoken to her in August and was hoping to speak to her in a month, when she was scheduled to be released from parole. He stated in an interview over the phone from Anchorage, Alaska, that his grandmother would have been appalled had she known about Cooper’s death sentence and people’s desire to end the life of another human being. Pelke now runs an organization called Journey of Hope – From Violence to Healing, which advocates against the death penalty in favor of alternative programs.
By Bill Ades
WRDB – Police: Ex-death row inmate Paula Cooper found dead of apparent suicide
Huffington Post – Former Death Row Inmate Paula Cooper Found Dead In Indianapolis
IndyStar – Former Death-Row Teen Paula Cooper – Who is She Now?
Photo Courtesy of World Coalition Against the Death Penalty’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License