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Death Row Inmate at 16, Later Freed, She Can't Escape Past

Society & Culture  (tags: crime, death, law )

- 1385 days ago -
Spared from execution, Cooper served 27 years. On a June day in 2013, she was released, a smiling but scared middle-aged woman riding off in a van, watching the prison razor wire fade in the rearview mirror.


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Phyllis P (232)
Saturday October 3, 2015, 5:00 pm
On May 14, 1985, Cooper, then 15, and three other girls cut school, drank and smoked marijuana. Armed with a 12-inch butcher knife, they knocked on Ruth Pelke's door in Gary, a fading Indiana steel city beset by crime.

Cooper and two friends entered, pretending to be interested in the Bible lessons she offered. While one girl stood lookout, according to court records, Cooper grabbed the 78-year-old woman from behind, pushed her to the floor, smashed a vase over her head, then repeatedly slashed her in the stomach and chest, arms and legs. She had 33 stab wounds.

The girls ransacked the house, taking $10 and stealing the widow's 1977 Plymouth. Cooper said robbery was the motive.

In 1986, Cooper pleaded guilty to murder. Before sentencing, her sister, Rhonda, testified about the girls' turbulent upbringing: She said her stepfather, now deceased, had disciplined them by pummeling them with his hands and whipping them with extension cords while they were naked. Cooper ran away repeatedly.

Her sister also recalled a day — she was about 12 and Paula, 9 — when their mother took both girls into the garage, turned on the car and announced they were going to heaven. They passed out and woke next to each other on a bed. (Cooper's mother declined to be interviewed.)

A defense psychologist who'd interviewed Cooper found "evidence of a major personality disorder" and a "strong tendency to be aggressive, hostile and vindictive." But he also noted her traumatic childhood.

Phyllis P (232)
Saturday October 3, 2015, 5:04 pm
Months after being sentenced, Cooper forged a more unlikely, life-changing friendship. Bill Pelke, the victim's grandson, remembers when it began:

A "save Paula" campaign was just beginning in Italy, where there was fierce opposition to the death penalty. Pelke spoke in Rome after his forgiveness of Cooper became public. Pope John Paul II appealed for clemency. Eventually, some 2 million signatures were collected on one petition.

"She learned a lot of life lessons in prison," Linton says. "As more people put faith and trust in her, she started believing in herself."

In 2001, a beaming Cooper, dressed in cap and gown, received a bachelor's degree in humanities from Martin University in a prison ceremony attended by her sister and father.

Rose Becke (141)
Saturday October 3, 2015, 5:07 pm

Phyllis P (232)
Saturday October 3, 2015, 5:08 pm
"She was always saying she needed to give back for what she had done," says Foster, her former lawyer, who reconnected with Cooper about a year after her release. They became close friends.

Foster, who heads the Indiana Federal Community Defender's Office, hired Cooper last fall as a legal assistant.

"She really became the soul of this office," Foster says, remembering Cooper as the happiest worker there. "She added a level of joy I think we'll never have again."

She seemed to be looking ahead — and yet on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, she was sobbing when she visited Ormeshia Linton at work.

"Friend, friend, I can't take it anymore," Linton recalls her saying. She'd never seen Cooper so broken.

"It's the pain inside, the pain inside," she said pointing to her heart, Linton recalls. "I just want it to be over."

When Linton awoke on May 26, her husband was screaming, "Meshia, Meshia."

Cooper had left four letters. Three were in envelopes on the stove.

Linton's was left open. It was a thank you and a goodbye.

The police found Cooper next to a tree, on her right side, a gun in her lap.

Barb Knight (1678)
Saturday October 3, 2015, 5:36 pm
Wrong is still Wrong no matter the up bringing. It is very sad for all parties.........

MmAway M (520)
Saturday October 3, 2015, 8:39 pm
I feel dumb!

Want to make things right ~ but just doesn't work! WT?????????????????/

Mandi T (367)
Saturday October 3, 2015, 10:16 pm
Sad :-(

Henriette Matthijssen (154)
Saturday October 3, 2015, 10:31 pm
May her soul rest in Peace! What a waste after serving 27 years & then being release she could not cope with herself & the free life she now had! Thanks Phyllis for posting!

S J (124)
Saturday October 3, 2015, 10:55 pm
prev read on yahoo a/c, thank you Phillis. i feel so sorry for her. may you rest in peace Paula.

Lynn Carin (360)
Saturday October 3, 2015, 11:35 pm
What Paula Cooper did (at the age of 15) was heinous. I can understand why she could not live with herself. ( I truly admire the victim's grandson for forgiving her, but, I must say that if someone had done that to my Mother or Aunt or Grandmother or someone I dearly loved, I don't know if I could do what he did. It would take a miracle of thought to forgive someone that had stabbed an innocent woman (especially of her age -78 years old - so vulnerable, so trusting) 30=33 times? - that's unconscionable. Yes, I see that she did turn her life around and that's a good thing. And, even though the beginning and ending in this story are tragic, it has some inspirational moments/points: like the people who helped her and stuck by her throughout her life (in prison/in the real world and those individuals who gave her a 'second chance.') The letters she left really summed it up... especially the one to her mother. Interesting, it was just a few lines to make her point. However, she obviously put some thought into her final moments/days. Even sadder, there is no peace from a suicide death. I hardly got through it without crying. All I can think about (as a mother) is she was only 15 when she committed this crime... that breaks my heart as I see more and more school shootings and violent crimes (and much cruelty to people and animals) in our world. Not really sure how to feel anymore... about humans. If Ruth's grandson writes / publishes his book "Journey of Hope" it should be a mandatory read by every prisoner and perhaps there will be better endings for those who were/are incarcerated, even for lifers because most everyone in the prison system has a family on the outside that still cares about them. Thanks for sharing this story, Phyllis.

Sherri G (128)
Sunday October 4, 2015, 12:30 am
Thank You Phyllis for sharing this heart breaking story. Noted

PlsNoMessage se (588)
Sunday October 4, 2015, 1:35 am

Lona G (66)
Sunday October 4, 2015, 1:49 am
What a terribly sad story of a life never truly lived.

Veronique L (209)
Sunday October 4, 2015, 2:22 am
Noted thanks

Jordan G (37)
Sunday October 4, 2015, 10:04 am
I can get her a job and education, but I have no way to contact her. If anyone is serious, email me.

Carmen S (611)
Sunday October 4, 2015, 10:36 am
Thanks Phyllis, sad that her life ended, and the tragic circumstances of her life forged bonds that will never be forgotten.

Rhonda B (99)
Sunday October 4, 2015, 11:07 am
Very sad :( Thank you Phyllis.

Janet B (0)
Sunday October 4, 2015, 1:36 pm

Phyllis P (232)
Sunday October 4, 2015, 3:14 pm
Jordan, how nice but she committed suicide.

tonia Deur (12)
Sunday October 4, 2015, 3:41 pm
This was so sad. I had tears in my eyes. Have you been beaten and raped by a family member? Have you been included in your mothers affair? Have you confided in teachers and your siblings? Have you been ignored? I have. Until you can understand or acknowledge this happens to a three year old an eight year old or a twelve year old, stop judging the anger. This girl had no one. I had a child . My love for him saved me. We are not all so lucky.

Vivian F (487)
Sunday October 4, 2015, 5:45 pm

Sheryl G (359)
Sunday October 4, 2015, 6:54 pm
Tragic from beginning to end. I wish there was some way she could of found peace on the Earth Walk but for her it wasn't to be.

This is what happens when children are not raised with love and compassion. At 16 she certainly did a heinous crime but had she been nurtured would she have gone down the same road. Doubtful.

Walter F (129)
Sunday October 4, 2015, 7:11 pm
She is in the care of The more hurt or fear.

Jonathan H (0)
Monday October 5, 2015, 12:39 am

Winn A (179)
Monday October 5, 2015, 6:30 am
:-( So tragic

Roberto MARINI (88)
Monday October 5, 2015, 8:44 am
thank you for this post

Margarita R (24)
Monday October 5, 2015, 11:10 am
thanks for sharing

Pamela Tracy (5)
Monday October 5, 2015, 12:38 pm
Sad. When you come from a family of abuse, things become difficult and you take your anger out on innocent people. And, sadly, religion cannot save everyone.

Joanne D (37)
Monday October 5, 2015, 12:54 pm
Nothing that humans do can possibly be perfect - and I take from this tragedy that there is a potential flaw in restorative justice. When a person who has done something truly terrible has been fully rehabilitated -THAT is when he or she will have trouble living with her/himself. Because full rehabilitation involves having a conscience. Those of us who have a functioning conscience often don't grasp that there are those who don't - let alone that developing one can be hazardous to their health. Of course it's still better to have one than not. But I believe we should be paying some attention to this possible side effect early to help prevent tragedies like this.

Latonya W (82)
Monday October 5, 2015, 3:10 pm

Past Member (0)
Monday October 5, 2015, 6:50 pm
Another soul who fell through the cracks. Couldn't find self-healing or self-forgiveness for her past transgressions.
That snowballs out of control, even if you're, perhaps too late, given love and care. Thanks Phyllis.

Laurie H (818)
Monday October 5, 2015, 10:06 pm
Such a sad and heartbreaking story. Her abusive upbringing with no caring or support system, gave her nothing positive in her life to help her through.Thank you for sharing Phyllis.~~~

Arild Warud (174)
Tuesday October 6, 2015, 3:14 am

Jaime Cammarata (457)
Tuesday October 6, 2015, 7:17 pm
Very tragic--thanks for sharing, noted

Debbie Crowe (87)
Sunday December 20, 2015, 12:24 pm
This is so sad, all the way around... (her childhood, her murder of Ruth Pelke, her imprisonment, etc... )
But, she also met some good people along the way!!
Rest in Peace Ruth Pelke and Paula Cooper!!

Past Member (0)
Tuesday January 19, 2016, 4:21 am
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