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Paula Cooper (born August 25, 1969[1] in Gary, Indiana, United States) was sentenced to death on July 11, 1986 for the murder of Ruth Pelke. Due to Cooper's age, 15 at the time of the murder, the sentence attracted an international uproar, including a condemnation from Pope John Paul II. In 1989, her sentence was commuted to 60 years in prison.[2]



Pelke, a 78-year old Bible teacher, was murdered on May 14, 1985 in her home in Gary, Indiana.[1] According to police, Cooper skipped school with three friends, drank alcohol and smoked marijuana before visiting Pelke, Cooper's neighbor, ostensibly to ask about Bible lessons. One of the girls struck Pelke with a vase, and Cooper stabbed the elderly woman 33 times in the chest and stomach with a foot-long butcher knife. She and her friends then searched the house for jewelry, and stole ten dollars and the keys to Pelke's car, a 1976 Plymouth.[3][4]

Cooper was described by her lawyers as a victim of sexual abuse and had attended ten different schools by the time of the murder. She had a prior record as a runaway and for burglary.[4] There was little question of her guilt in the case. She was considered to be the ringleader of the group of girls, aged 14 to 16, who were all given sentences of 25 to 60 years for their roles in the crime. According to authorities, Cooper attacked guards in the juvenile center after her arrest and had to be moved to the County Jail. There, it was reported that she bragged about her crime and said she would do it again.[2]

Sentencing and fallout

Cooper was advised by her public defender to plead guilty. At sentencing, Lake County prosecutor James McNew portrayed Cooper as a social misfit, beyond any hope of rehabilitation and asked for the death penalty. The defense presented evidence that she was a chronic runaway who had been physically abused and forced to watch the rape of her mother, and that her mother had attempted to kill her at one point. She was found guilty and the death penalty was imposed by Judge James Kimbrough.[4]

Cooper was sent to Death Row at Indiana Women's Prison in Indianapolis. Her case was taken up by attorney Monica Foster, who organized a campaign which had strong public support, especially in Europe. The campaign presented an appeal signed by two million people to the Indiana Supreme Court. Pope John Paul II made a personal appeal to Indiana Governor Robert Orr in September 1987.[5] A separate appeal to the United Nations received one million signatures.[3]

Cooper's case was profiled on 60 Minutes and various European television programs. She was front-page news in her hometown of Gary, including a scandal where it was found that several prison guards had sex with her in her cell, and pregnancy tests were performed, which came up negative.[4]

Judge Kimbrough had died and the appeals process was slowed as a replacement was chosen. In 1987, the Indiana legislature passed a bill raising the minimum age for a defendant in a death penalty case from 10 years old to 16. Although the change was a reaction to the Cooper case, the legislature made it clear the change did not affect Cooper's death sentence. In 1988, a Supreme Court decision, Thompson v. Oklahoma, barred the death penalty for defendants under the age of 16 at the time of the crime. The Indiana Supreme Court considered both of these developments, and on July 3, 1989 the court heard arguments and reduced the sentence to life in prison.[2] A New York Times editorial that month called the court's decision "brave" and said that the law on which her death sentence was based was "medieval" (it allowed execution of children as young as 10).[6]


Cooper earned a GED and took college correspondence courses while in prison.[7] As of 2007 she is projected to be released in 2014.[8] Although she was sentenced to sixty years, Indiana law dictates that offenders earn one day off from their sentence for each day served with good behavior.

Pelke's grandson, Bill Pelke, initially favored the death penalty for Cooper but joined the movement opposing it in 1987. He wrote about his forgiveness of Cooper in a 2003 book Journey of Hope.[9]


  1. ^ a b "Prosecution page". Retrieved 2007-05-26.  
  2. ^ a b c "Woman's Execution for Murder at 15 Is Barred". Associated Press. 1989-07-13.  
  3. ^ a b "Paula Cooper Case Records". Indiana Historical Society. Retrieved 2007-05-26.  
  4. ^ a b c d "Death Sentence At 16 Rekindles Debate On Justice For Juveniles". New York Times. 1986-11-02. p. A26.  
  5. ^ "Pope Urges Indiana Not to Execute Woman". New York Times. 1987-09-27. p. 13A.  
  6. ^ "Topics of The Times; A Murderous Child". New York Times. 1989-07-17. p. 16A.  
  7. ^ Penn, Mary Sue (May 1995). "Leaven of Forgiveness". Sojourner's Magazine. Retrieved 2007-05-26.  
  8. ^ "Indiana Offender Database Search". Retrieved 2008-01-06.  
  9. ^ " description". Retrieved 2007-05-26.  

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