At 16 years old, Paula Cooper became the youngest person on death row in America. She, along with three other teenage girls, was convicted of killing 78-year-old bible study teacher Ruth Pelke in 1985. Described by prosecutors as the ringleader of the group, Cooper was given the maximum penalty of death by electrocution.
Now, thirty years later, Paula Cooper is free. The Gary, Indiana, woman is now 43. She earned her GED and a bachelor’s degree in prison and worked in the prison kitchen. In 1988, three years into her incarceration, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to execute a prisoner who was under 16 at the time of their crime. As a result, Cooper’s sentence was commuted from death to 60 years. Under Indiana law, a prisoner can earn one day off their sentence for every day of good behavior. By maintaining conduct while behind bars, Cooper was able to reduce her sentence by half. Her prison record isn’t blemish-free however; the New York Daily News reports that Cooper got into trouble 23 times before she started studying and working in prison.
The murder of Ruth Pelke was horrific. It began with a robbery but quickly escalated. Cooper used a butcher knife to cut the old woman more than 30 times. In the end, the girls made off with Pelke’s car and $10. Cooper’s co-defendants received lighter sentences.
Despite the gruesome details of the crime, Cooper has found an unlikely supporter: Pelke’s grandson. “I’m hoping we’ll get together for a meal and do some shopping,” Bill Pelke told ABC News.
Pelke says his grandmother would forgive Cooper: “I became convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that my grandmother would have had love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family,” Pelke told CNN. Though he himself had a hard time forgiving Cooper, he thought his grandmother would want him to find love in his heart for her killer. “I begged God to give me love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family and do that on behalf of my grandmother,” he said.