- (Photo: Courtesy Lake County Police Department)
Paula Cooper was given the death penalty at age 16 for murdering 78-year-old Ruth Pelke, a Bible teacher. Cooper's sentence was commuted and today she will walk out of the prison she's called home for 24 years.
Cooper's young age made her a celebrity of sorts, as she was the youngest person ever to be on death row. She was sentenced to the death penalty, but thanks to a huge campaign, a legal challenge to the system, and an appeal by Pope John Paul II, the sentence was overturned. Cooper was then ordered to serve 60 years.
She served 24 of those years and will be released today, though it is unknown where she will go. Cooper is an unforgettable figure and while there are those who are happy her sentence was commuted, there are still others who mourn the loss of Pelke and want justice.
Pelke's own grandson, Bill, told the Indianapolis Star that he's forgiven Cooper and now considers her a friend.
"My main concern is seeing her get settled and find a job," Pelke said.
He is afraid that media coverage could make those things difficult for Cooper, as is Cooper's own sister, Rhonda Labroi.
"She's a very different person. She is a lot more educated and older and wiser now. I think things will be different. There are second chances," Labroi said. "It seems like God has given her another chance. I think if people give her a second chance, she'll do fine."
"Everybody has a responsibility to do right or wrong, and if you do wrong, you should be punished," Cooper said in a 2004 interview with The Star. "Rehabilitation comes from you. If you're not ready to be rehabilitated, you won't be."
According to reports, Cooper was the ringleader of the murder. She and three other teenage girls went to Pelke's home under the pretense of wanting to study the Bible with the teacher. When she opened her door, one of the teens hit her on the head with a vase, asked for money, and then stabbed her to death.
During her time in prison, Cooper has earned her GED, a vocational degree and a bachelor's degree as well. She also trained dogs for the disabled and worked as a tutor. Now her family hopes that her good deeds will help her in the outside world.
"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."