In 1986 things were certainly different than today. The United States bombed Libya, the average income per year was 22,000 dollars and Tandy released the first portable computer which cost a little less than 1,600 bucks. While over seven million people were celebrating unity with “Hands Across America”, the state of Indiana was busy prosecuting and sentencing its first female death row inmate, Paula Cooper.
There are only 61 women on death row in our country. The Department of Corrections, which is governed independently from state to state, reports of the 3,125 people scheduled to die for their crimes, only 2% of them are woman. Paula Cooper can breathe a sigh of relief as she walks out of the Indiana Correctional Center a free woman as of June 17th, 2013.
Cooper was convicted of going on a rampage when she was only 15 years and murdering 78 year old bible school teacher Ruth Pelke. When Cooper and some friends smoked marijuana and drank wine, they broke into Pelke’s home. After savagely beating her, forensics revealed that Cooper stabbed her victim 33 times in the stomach, arms and legs. What made the crime even more senseless was the amount of money they walked away with; only 10 dollars. The courtroom was set on fire in the already hot climate of Indiana in the summer of July 1986 when the judge announced he would implement the death penalty for Cooper.
What happened next surprised even Paula, who admitted guilt. Over 2 million people across the country signed a petition to spare her life. She seemed to even garner heavenly support when Pope John Paul II became one of her advocates. As Paula sat behind bars in the Indiana State Prison for Women, the world kept going and slowly her supporters dropped off.
Of course this case would continue to surprise the media. The grandson of murdered Ruth Pelke came forward to request the death penalty be lifted from Ms. Cooper. Bill Pelke said he actually forgave them nearly three months after she was sentenced. Citing his family beliefs in the bible and the fact that every human deserves to be forgiven, he began to work towards her living, not dying.
To everyone’s amazement, Indiana reversed her death row sentence in 1989 down to 60 years in prison. Eight years later, Pelke’s grandson Bill came face to face with Paula. An unlikely friendship was formed and they have since kept up communications through the prison email system. Bill has even asked to be notified in the event of her release and promised to help her get back on her feet with a little shopping.
Fast forward to 2013, and Paula Cooper is walking out of prison free. As of 10:00am Monday the 17th, she is getting her first taste of a brand new world. I could only imagine what is going through her head as she sees her first cell phone up close. Being imprisoned at 16, there are tons of things she never experienced. Sure she’s seen commercials and watched the world change through the televisions behind bars, but nothing can compare to tasting, handling and seeing for one’s self. Maybe with all the support and forgiveness that has been extended to her, this is her chance to seize the life she never had.
By: Cherese Jackson