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Woman Free After 27 Years on Death Row: Top 10 Facts You Need to Know

Paula Cooper Mugshot

Paula Cooper 1985

During the day of May 14, 1985, Indiana woman Paula Cooper became a murderer. She was only 15 years old when she committed the horrible offense and for it, she was sentenced to death. But now, 27 years later, Paula Cooper is free thanks to the grandson of her victim.

Here is what you need to know.


1. She is Free After 27 Years on Death Row

Paula Cooper was sentenced to Death in July of 1986. However, in 1989, the sentence was commuted to 60 years in prison, of which Cooper served 27. The early release comes with decades of good behavior and petitions from Bill Pelke, the victim’s Grandson.


2. The Victim’s Grandson Helped Free Her

pelke murder

From The Forgiveness Project

Bill Pelke is the grandson of Paula Cooper’s victim and has forgiven her and petitioned on her behalf since the late 1980s. He told the CNN that he and Cooper were going to go shopping upon her release so that she can get back to living:

I am happy she is getting out tomorrow and I wish her the very best. She is supposed to call me when she gets out, and we’re supposed to meet and go shopping. I told her whenever she got out, I’d treat her. I have a friend who would like to buy her an outfit, and I want to buy her a computer.


3. Her Victim Was 78-Year-Old Ruth Pelke

Paula Cooper’s victim and Bill Pelke’s grandmother was 78-years-old when she was murdered. According to her grandson, she was a devout Christian who taught Bible lessons from her home and had compassion for everyone.


4. Cooper Stabbed Her 33 Times

paula cooper murder free

On May 14, 1985, Cooper and three girls skipped school and came up with a scheme to get money. After drinking wine and smoking marijuana, the four girls went to the house of Ruth Pelke and inquired about Bible classes. While her back was turned, the girls hit Pelke with a vase, cut at her legs and and arms, and ultimately stabbed her 33 times in the chest and stomach.


5. Cooper Only Got $10

According to the official court statement , Cooper and her friends only only took $10 and Pelke’s car after searching the house for money and valuable objects.


6. She was the Youngest Person on Death Row

Death Penalty
In 1986, after pleading guilty and confessing to the killing, 16-year-old Cooper was sentenced to death by electric chair. She was the youngest person on death row in both Indiana and the rest of the United States.

ABC reports that:

Shortly after, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the execution of young people who were under 16 at the time they committed an offense could not be sentenced to death, saying it counted as cruel and unusual punishment and was thus unconstitutional. Indiana legislators then passed a state law raising the minimum age limit for execution from 10 years to 16, and in 1988, the state’s high court set Cooper’s death sentence aside and ordered her to serve 60 years in prison.


7. Pope John Paul II Pleaded on Her Behalf

pope john paul

In 1987, due to the young age of the person sentenced to death, Pope John Paul II personally appealed to Indiana Governor Robert Orr to commute the sentence. A similar petition, to the United Nation, received over a million signatures.


8. Cooper Took Classes in Prison

According to Bill Pelke, Cooper has received her GED and took numerous college courses while in prison:

Paula is not the same person who committed that terrible crime back in 1985. She has accepted God into her life and is working to improve herself spiritually. She received her GED after getting of off death row and several years ago obtained a college degree by taking correspondence courses.

ABC also confirmed that while in prison, Cooper was awarded a Bachelor’s degree.


9.Bill Pelke Wrote a Book About the Murder

bill pelke
Ruth Pelke’s grandson has written a book about the incident entitled A Journey of Hope:…From Violence to Healing. The book covers his journey from hating his grandmother’s murder to forgiveness and chronicles his opposition to the death penalty.


10. She Will Be on Parole For Years

According to ABC, Cooper will remain on parole for many years to come to make sure that she will not revert back to the behavior of her childhood.

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