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Indiana Woman Spared Death Penalty and Eventually Released Takes Own Life

Paula Cooper, convicted for participating in a murder of an elderly grandmother in Indiana in 1984, when she was 15, was sentenced to death before eventually having her sentence  commuted  in 1989 to 60 years in prison, was finally released in 2013.  Unfortunately, freedom did not bring peace to the now middle-aged woman with a history of mental illness, and she apparently took her own life on May 26, 2015.

Cooper had expressed regret for her participation in the murder of the elderly, 78-year old Ruth Pelke, a Gary Bible teacher, whom she stabbed repeatedly. Cooper received the death penalty after pleading guilty to the offense in 1986 and her co-defendants also receive long prison sentences. At the time of her conviction, she was the youngest death-row prisoner in the United States.

Pelke's grandson, Bill, although initially welcoming the imposition of the death penalty in the case of his beloved grandmother, was moved after several years to forgive Cooper, who had expressed regret for her crime. "She told me how truly sorry she was for what she’d done,” said Mr. Pelke.  He  co-founded the anti-death-penalty charity of "Journey of Hope: From Violence to Healing," and acts as the group's president. Cooper's fate became a magnet for prisoners’ rights groups, such as Amnesty International, and even the Pope, who all sought her release from custody.

 However, freedom for Cooper came at a price, as she went from the controlled environment of prison life to the uncertainty and stress of living on her own.  In prison she had worked as a tutor, food-service manager and guide dog trainer, and also earned a bachelor's degree. Upon her release she moved to Indianapolis, landed a job working in a fast-food restaurant and later became a manager there, then moved to a position as a legal assistant in the Indiana federal defender's office.  She got her own apartment and became engaged.

However, the darkness of depression and probably mental illness that apparently had enveloped her as a young girl, and came and went while she was in prison, returned.  She apparently had never forgiven herself for her crime, even though she had been forgiven. As her sister said, "Bill Pelke forgave her, (but)...she felt like she didn't deserve to live."  Unfortunately for Cooper, one of many prisoners and former prisoners suffering from mental illness, the burden of coping with that guilt became just too great.

Sources: "Freedom, Finally, After a Life in Prison," by Amy Linn, The NY Times, August 21, 2015; "Former Death Row Teen, Paula Cooper:  Where is She Now?" by Tim Evans, Indy Star, May 27, 2015; "Bill Pelke's Journey of Hope," The Forgiveness Project, the

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