Paula Cooper, sentenced to death at age 16 in the slaying of an elderly woman, will leave prison after 24 years.
Paula Cooper was 16 when she was sentenced to death for killing an elderly Bible study teacher.
That made the Gary, Ind., teen the youngest person ever in the state to face the death penalty. At the time in 1986, she also was the youngest Death Row inmate in the United States.
To many, Cooper was a monster beyond rehabilitation. But others saw her as a victim of an abusive childhood and racist criminal justice system.
A legal challenge and international campaign to overturn her death sentence, which included an appeal from Pope John Paul II, saved Cooper’s life.
The Indiana Supreme Court commuted the death sentence in 1989 and sent her to prison for 60 years. For the past 24 years, she has lived in relative obscurity.
On Monday, Cooper will try to put all of that behind her when she walks out of the Rockville Correctional Facility.
It will be the 43-year-old’s first taste of freedom since her arrest in 1985.
Cooper was 15 when she was charged with murder in the grisly stabbing of 78-year-old Ruth Pelke during a robbery. Three other co-defendants — also teenage girls at the time — went to prison but have been released.
Where Cooper will go and what she plans to do remain unclear. She did not respond to an interview request from The Indianapolis Star.
What is known is that she will leave prison with at least $75, a new outfit provided by the state and a bachelor’s degree, according to DOC spokesman Douglas Garrison.
Cooper also is walking away with other baggage: a hard-to-shake notoriety as a heartless killer.
Time has changed the way some view Cooper, including a grandson of her victim and the prosecutor who tried to send her to Indiana’s electric chair.
But for many others, her name continues to elicit memories of the brutal murder.
“People still know about this case,” said Indianapolis attorney Jack Crawford, who was the prosecutor when Cooper was charged and convicted. “The name Paula Cooper still resonates, and she’s going to attract some attention when she is released.”
That’s Bill Pelke’s fear. A grandson of the murder victim, Pelke has forgiven and befriended Cooper. He declined to talk about her release.
“My main concern,” he said, “is seeing her get settled and find a job.”
Pelke said media coverage could make the already hard task of building a new life even more difficult.
Cooper’s sister, Rhonda Labroi, said she hopes people look past the frozen-in-time image of her younger sister as a teenage killer.
“She’s a very different person,” Labroi said. “She is a lot more educated and older and wiser now. I think things will be different.”
Cooper, she added, “has paid her price.”
“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.”
In a 2004 interview with The Star, Cooper expressed remorse for her actions and a desire to turn around her life.
“Everybody has a responsibility to do right or wrong, and if you do wrong, you should be punished,” she said. “Rehabilitation comes from you. If you’re not ready to be rehabilitated, you won’t be.”
Murder was planned
Crawford said he has come to oppose the death penalty but thought it was appropriate at the time of Pelke’s murder. Indiana law then allowed prosecutors to seek the death penalty for those as young as 10 — and he did.
“When we asked for it, it was controversial because she was so young,” Crawford said. “But my feeling was that if the law allowed for imposition of the death sentence on a teenager, this was the case because of the facts. I couldn’t imagine a worse set of facts for a defendant. But if it was ever justified, this was the time it was probably justified.”
The case and reaction to the death sentence, Crawford said, attracted more scrutiny and notoriety than any other in his 12 years as a prosecutor in Lake County.
“It got a lot of attention for a lot of different reasons: She’s a female, she’s 15 years old, the ferocity of the killing, the white-black thing,” said Crawford.
“It was four teenage girls on their lunch break from high school going over and committing a horrific crime. It was just incredible. It was so amazing that these girls could have killed so dispassionately and viciously.”
The girls, Crawford said, “planned to kill (Pelke) from the get-go.”
Cooper, who was identified as the ringleader in the murder-robbery, brought a 12-inch butcher knife when she and three friends went to Pelke’s home on May 25, 1985.
Pelke welcomed the teens into her home after the girls said they were interested in Bible study lessons.
One of the teens then hit Pelke on the head with a vase, knocking her to the ground.
“Paula Cooper got on top of her and kept saying to her, and this is her own admission, ‘Where’s the money, bitch?'” Crawford said.
When Pelke responded that she didn’t have any money, Crawford said Cooper “started torturing her, slicing her with the butcher knife across her chest.”
As Pelke lay on the floor, Crawford said the investigation revealed, “she was saying the Lord’s Prayer as she died.”
Cooper and the three other teen girls — Denise Thomas, 14, Karen Corder, 16, and April Beverly, 15 — fled with about $10 and Pelke’s car. The were arrested days later, Crawford said, after bragging about the killing.
An autopsy revealed Pelke had been stabbed more than 30 times, with one strike going through her chest and leaving a mark in the wooden floor beneath her body.
Beverly turned state’s witness, cooperating with police and prosecutors, and was sentenced to 25 years for robbery. She was released from prison in 1999.
Reached at her home in Colorado, Beverly hung up when asked about the case.
Thomas was convicted of murder and sentenced to 35 years. She was released in 2003. Corder also was convicted of murder and sentenced to 60 years. She was released in 2008.
The Star was unable to locate them.
Sentence brings outcry
When it came time to go to court, Cooper pleaded guilty to the murder charge.
Kevin Relphorde, who was her public defender, said they hoped “the guilty plea and her remorse” would be considered mitigating factors that might save Cooper from the death penalty.
“I guess,” he said, “the judge felt as if he had no choice.”
That’s the way Crawford recalled it, too.
At the sentencing, Crawford and Relphorde said, Lake County Judge James Kimbrough gave a long explanation of why he opposed the death penalty. Then he dropped the bomb: He was sentencing Cooper to death.
That’s when attention generated by the case shifted. No longer was the focus on a grisly murder committed by a group of teen girls. Now, the outcry was over a 16-year-old being sentenced to death.
Cooper was only the fourth woman in Indiana to receive the death penalty, and just one other woman has been sentenced to death since that time. Four of those five sentences came within a period between 1985 and 1989. The other — the first in Indiana — was handed down in 1956.
Indiana, however, has never executed a woman, and all but one of the five death sentences was eventually reduced. The lone woman on Death Row in Indiana today, Debra Denise Brown, is actually serving a life sentence in Ohio.
Crawford remembers the shift in public reaction. You don’t forget, he explained, when an emissary from the pope shows up at your office. Amnesty International also became involved, and the case took on a life of its own in Europe, particularly in Italy.
Letters and petitions signed by death penalty opponents flooded the prosecutor’s office and, later, the Indiana Supreme Court.
An Indiana Historical Society background sheet on items in its collection related to the case notes: “Appeals were made to the Indiana Supreme Court, which received two million signatures; to Governor Robert Orr, who received an appeal from the pope in September 1987; and to the United Nations, which received a million signatures.”
The uproar came as the U.S. Supreme Court was wrestling with the issue of sentencing teens to death. In 1988, the high court ruled it was unconstitutional to execute anyone who was younger than 16 at the time they committed a crime.
The following year, Indiana lawmakers upped the minimum age from 10 to 16.
Indiana raised its minimum age to 18 in 2002. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to execute anyone younger than 18.
Those changes mean Cooper’s place in history as the youngest person in Indiana to receive the death penalty likely will not be eclipsed.
Making strides in prison
Cooper made efforts in prison to turn around her life but also had numerous scrapes with authorities.
Her conduct seemed to improve with time after a low point in 1995, when she was sentenced to three years of solitary confinement for assaulting a prison guard.
In all, DOC records show she was cited 23 times for rules violations, including 10 low-level violations — unruly conduct, being in an unauthorized area and sexual contact — since 2005.
“I was very bitter and angry, so I was in a lot of trouble. I hated it. But I learned to adapt eventually,” she said in the 2004 interview. “I decided for myself it was time to really sit down and buckle down and get it, because it wasn’t gonna always be there.”
She earned her GED, then a vocational degree and, in 2001, a bachelor’s degree. She also helped train dogs as companions for the disabled and, since 2011, has worked as a tutor.
Crawford, the former prosecutor who led the push for Cooper’s execution, said he wishes her well as she enters a new chapter of her life.
“She has served her time, and perhaps she can make some contributions to society,” he said. “I hope she continues to try to rehabilitate herself and make some amends for the crime she committed some 30 years ago.”
Cooper’s sister, Labroi, just hopes she gets a chance to escape her notoriety.
“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,” she said. “Give her an opportunity. Maybe she’ll do some wonderful things for children who are growing up and aren’t so fortunate like she was.”