Youngest Woman On Death Row, Educates Herself And Released

51be7da4d8429.preview-620After being the youngest child in the United States condemned to die by execution in 1986, Paula Cooper, now 43 years of age, walked out of prison Monday after having been imprisoned for 28 years.

At the age of 15 years old, Cooper and three other juvenile girls were involved with the murder of Ruth Pelke, a 78 year old Bible school teacher. Cooper and her cohorts gained entrance into Pelke’s home by exaggerating interest in Pelke’s Bible classes. Upon entrance of the home, Cooper pushed the victim to the floor, hit her on the head with a vase, and began stabbing the victim with a butcher knife. The evidence revealed that Pelke’s was stabbed 33 times. Subsequently, Cooper and her cohorts ransacked the victim’s Gary, Indianapolis, home. They left the scene of the crime with the victim’s car and $10 in cash. At the age of 15 years old, Cooper confessed to the commission of the above crime.

The prosecution sought the death penalty for Cooper, only and, Cooper’s three other cohorts received prison sentences ranging from 25 to 60 years. In 1986, Cooper was convicted and sentenced to die. During this time, Cooper was the youngest prisoner in the United States to be committed to a cage on death row. As a result, the Indiana state legislature enacted a law that prohibited the execution of a defendant that was under 16 years of age at the time of a capital crime. The bill was named after Paula Cooper. But, the prosecution argued that the new legislation was not retroactive and therefore not applicable to Cooper. Moreover, the sponsors of the new legislation openly admitted that the legislation was designed not to precluded the state from killing Cooper. As a consequence, there was an outcry of a racist criminal justice system from various advocates.

ap_paula_cooper_nt_130617_wblogIn 1987, Pope John Paul II advocated that Cooper should be given clemency. And, a priest, in 1988, brought to Indianapolis from Italy, a petition that contained more than 2 million signatures, which represented the voices of disapproval of Cooper’s death sentence.

Ultimately, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court of Indiana. The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that to sentenced Cooper to death for a crime that was committed when she was 15 years of age would amount to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution. In so doing, the Court relied on Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. , 108 S.Ct. 2687, 101 L.Ed.2d 702 (1988), wherein a majority of the United States Supreme Court vacated a death sentence based on facts comparable to those in Cooper. In sum, in 1988, the Indiana Supreme Court vacated Cooper’s death sentence and ordered a prison term of 60 years. Because of Cooper’s rehabilitation and her desire to educate herself, she was released from prison early.

On May 11, 2001, Cooper earned a bachelor’s degree in humanities, with a minor in psychology, from Martin University. She contributes her desire to educate herself while in prison as the events that changed her from the individual that she once was to the person that walked through the prison gates today.


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