Paula Cooper released from prison
INDIANAPOLIS — A woman who was sentenced to death at age 16 for taking part in the torture and murder of a 78-year-old bible studies teacher was released from an Indiana prison Monday after growing to middle age behind bars.
Paula Cooper, whose 1986 death sentence enraged human rights activists and drew a plea for clemency from Pope John Paul II, left the state prison quietly in a state-owned van and wearing donated clothing, Department of Correction spokesman Doug Garrison said.
As is customary, the prison, about 60 miles west of Indianapolis, gave the now-43-year-old woman $75 to help her make a fresh start.
When asked where Cooper was being taken, Garrison said, “We have something arranged but that’s not something I can talk about.”
Cooper was 15 years old when she used a butcher’s knife to cut Ruth Pelke 33 times during a robbery in Gary that ended in Pelke’s death. Her three companions — one only 14 — received lighter sentences, but Cooper confessed to the killing and was sentenced to death by a judge who opposed capital punishment, said former prosecutor Jack Crawford, who sought the death penalty for Cooper. Crawford is now a defense lawyer in Indianapolis and no longer supports capital punishment.
“She sat on her, slicing her,” Crawford said. “This was a torture crime.”
The following year, Cooper became the country’s youngest death row inmate.
The sentencing of a 16-year-old to death enraged human rights activists in the U.S. and Europe.
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.
Two years after Cooper was sentenced to die, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in an unrelated case that the execution of young people who were under 16 at the time they committed an offense was cruel and unusual punishment and was thus unconstitutional. Indiana legislators then passed a state law raising the minimum age limit for execution from 10 years to 16, and in 1988, the state’s high court set Cooper’s death sentence aside and ordered her to serve 60 years in prison.
“Was justice done? Twenty-four years is a long time, but I’m not sure,” Crawford said.