Youngest Person on Death Row Released


by Casie Kolbinsky

ROCKVILLE, I.N.-- The youngest person on death row walked out of an Indiana correctional facility as a free woman Monday.

Paula Cooper was 16 years old when, in 1986, she became the youngest person on death row in the United States. After spending 27 years in Indiana's Women's Prison in Indianapolis, she left Indiana's Rockville Correctional Facility Monday at 10 a.m., sources say.

To many people's surprise, the grandson of the woman Cooper killed reportedly served as an ally up to her release.

At the age of 15, Cooper formed a plan to steal money with her friends. After smoking marijuana and drinking wine, Cooper and some of her friends arrived at the house of Ruth Pelke, a 78-year-old Bible teacher. After hitting Pelke with a vase, Cooper slashed the woman's arms and legs and then stabbed her in the stomach and chest more than 30 times. The group ended up stealing $10 from Pelke that night, according to Indiana state records.

Reports say an Indiana judge sentenced Cooper to death Friday, July 11, 1986.

However, more than 2 million people signed a petition for the release of Cooper from death row. Sources say even Pope John Paul II appealed to Indiana Gov. Robert Orr, asking officials to let Cooper go.

Pelke's grandson, Bill Pelke, advocated Cooper, as well, saying he forgave Cooper three months after her sentence, reports say.

"For a year and a half, I thought about how my grandmother died, and it was horrible," he reportedly said. "I started thinking about my grandmother's life and all the wonderful things about her. I realized I no longer wanted Paula to die. I wanted to help her. I realized forgiveness had already taken place, and it brought a tremendous healing to me."

The Indiana Supreme Court changed the sentence to 60 years in prison in 1989, sources say.

After Cooper and Pelke visited face-to-face eight years later, the two formed a friendship. Up to Cooper's release, the two reportedly exchanged weekly emails using the prison's email system.

Sources say Pelke felt glad about Cooper's release.

"I am happy she is getting out tomorrow, and I wish her the very best," he reportedly said Sunday. "She is supposed to call me when she gets out, and we're supposed to meet and go shopping. I told her whenever she got out, I'd treat her. I have a friend who would like to buy her an outfit, and I want to buy her a computer." 


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