Forgiveness and Death, Remembering Paula Cooper

Strap in—this is a heavy one. Last week, an article in The New York Times provided […]

CJ Green / 9.2.15

paula-cooperStrap in—this is a heavy one. Last week, an article in The New York Times provided some insight into the life and times of Paula Cooper, with whom journalist Amy Linn had made personal contact last spring.

When she was fifteen, allegedly drunk and high, Paula robbed 78-year-old Ruth Pelke and stabbed her 33 times with a foot-long butcher knife before ransacking the old woman’s house and taking out her ’76 Plymouth for an afternoon joyride with schoolmates and snack cakes. That was thirty years ago, 1985.

Of the four girls present and involved in the brutal murder, Paula was the only one to receive an electric-chair sentence—the youngest death-row inmate in Indiana, ever. She was considered the group’s ringleader, and her conduct even after the arrest was less than repentant. A scandal broke after the trial, that she had supposedly had sex with prison officers, possibly hoping to get pregnant and thereby gain a judge’s sympathy.

The victim, Ruth, couldn’t have been more different. A gentle Bible teacher, her mission was local child evangelism, and her blamelessness seemed only to amplify the public’s anger over her cruel and unjust death. According to a 1985 piece by in The Chicago Tribune, Ruth had lived in the same house for 44 years, though the neighborhood had grown increasingly volatile:

Her home has been burglarized five times in recent years. But the day before she was slain, the widow told her stepson, Robert, that she did not want to leave her neat home. “When I leave here, it will be to go there,” she told her stepson, gesturing up. “I have good neighbors; they watch out for me.”

Police said one of those neighbors, Beverly, allegedly led three friends to Pelke’s house under the guise of inquiring about Bible classes. Investigators said Beverly stood watch as Pelke was stabbed to death (Wes Smith, John O’Brien, “4 Unlikely Suspects in Savage Slaying”).

According to a memoir written by Bill Pelke, Ruth’s grandson, the victim’s family was initially in favor of the death penalty, understandably showing no sign of any real forgiveness for Paula. The victim’s son testified: “Yes, Ruth did believe in forgiveness, but she wasn’t a dummy. She would not have turned her back a second time.” Her grandson, Bill, explained, “I felt that whatever the law called for was fine with me. If the law said the death penalty was okay, then okay.” Thirty years old, he witnessed one of the most emotional trials the US has seen:

paula-cooper-at-age-16-when-she-was-sentenced-for--1432804256320I felt if they didn’t give the death sentence to [Paula] Cooper, then they were telling my family and me that Nana was not an important enough person for her killing to warrant a death sentence.

My dad had written a letter to the judge listing about thirty Bible references that mention death as a punishment. He said the Bible called for the death penalty. From my Bible knowledge I knew the scriptures were from the Old Testament (50, 52).

Certainly the Old Testament, comprised largely of God’s law, serves to condemn: the wages of sin is death. Though Paula asked for forgiveness on the stand, another witness also testified that, behind the scenes, Paula had said, “Yeah, I stabbed an old lady. I’d stab the bitch again. I’d stab your [expletive] grandmother” (52).

Paula Cooper was sentenced to death on July 11, 1986.

But a memory from that trial would haunt Ruth’s grandson, Bill Pelke, from that moment forward:

As [Paula’s] testimony ended, and the judge was about to give his decision, there was a loud disturbance in the courtroom. An old man began crying and wailing loudly, “They are going to kill my baby! They are going to kill my baby!” The judge ordered he bailiff to escort the man from the courtroom because it was disrupting the proceedings. I watched as the old man walked by me; I saw tears rolling down his cheeks. It was Paula Cooper’s grandfather (54).

After that, Bill realized that he, and his perspective on the fate of Paula Cooper, was changed forever. He developed an unquenchable need to do anything in his power to get her off death row, “just to show her God’s love; I don’t think she was raised with very much of it.”

Across the ocean Europeans had caught wind of the case. Objections were raised from various international positions, advocating for the suspension of her death primarily because of her age. Italy caused the biggest uproar, and in September of the following year the Vatican, under Pope John Paul II, sent an ambassador to plead on behalf of the now eighteen-year-old Paula.

Bill Pelke, who had begun corresponding with Paula via letters, remembers how shocked she was at the Pope’s concern, “because all my life nobody cared for me.” Which wasn’t an overstatement: The NY Times reported that as a child Paula suffered regular abuse by her father, while her mother had attempted to kill herself and her daughters when they were young, sitting them all in the car with the engine running and the garage door closed.

With millions of petitioners on her side, Paula’s death sentence was eventually exchanged for 60 years’ imprisonment, and, on hearing the news, Bill Pelke said, “Praise the Lord!”

Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, admits that Bill’s forgiveness was at the “epicenter” of the whole story. In the preface to his memoir, she writes:

This seminal act of forgiveness of Paula Cooper precipitates the transformation of virtually every other relationship in [Bill’s] life and his life-mission, which [brought] him to Rome and into the hearts of the Italian people, who gather[ed] two million signatures asking for Paula Cooper’s life to be spared from the death sentence. Just the international dimensions make this an amazing story.

During her time, Paula began preparing daily meals for over one hundred prison staffers, who described her as “a kind-hearted hard worker.” The Times of NW Indiana asked a staffer about Paula’s responsibilities working in the prison kitchen:

Paula has pretty much taken that under her wing and does an excellent job. We offer a sandwich or salad or lunch item for the staff each day, and she totally takes care of that, and she has, I think, a photographic memory, because if somebody says they don’t want onions or if they want extra ketchup or something, she can remember that from week to week.

Paula herself said, “I take great pride in what I do, because people have to trust you to eat your food. That’s the most personal thing they can do is taking something out your hand and believe that you done nothing to it.” It’s humbling to think about the primal importance of the exchanging of food, the tenderness and vulnerability it signifies both biblically and in everyday life.

In the wake of her forgiveness, Paula seemed to be a new person, completely transformed. One of her prison friends, Melissa, said that once a woman had come to prison for killing her baby, and people constantly treated her poorly because of it. But Paula was different. Paula made an effort to “make sure that this girl felt comfortable being there.”


Indiana law requires that for every day of good behavior, one day is removed from the sentence. Paula served for almost thirty years in prison and for exceptional behavior was released in 2013, forty-three years old. Finally free, she worked several jobs, eventually becoming a legal assistant, and her boss said that “she was the first point of contact for people seeking help, some in their darkest hours. Paula ‘was able to make them feel that they had dignity. She got who they were.’”

This past week, Amy Linn wrote for The NY Times:

I’d been planning a trip to Indianapolis to finally meet her for a story about teenagers on death row who transformed themselves. If anyone was proof that redemption was possible, it was Ms. Cooper.

She asked me to wait a little. “My life is quiet right now, and that’s how I like it. Once people find out who I am, they all have an opinion about me because of what I did. They start seeing me as a monster.

The truth is, as Sister Helen Prejean says, “people are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives.” But the other truth is that the worst thing we do stains us, and once other people see those stains, it’s hard to see beyond them. You don’t have to read Paula’s story to know that; that’s a truth I’ve experienced, and it sucks. Once Paula got out of prison, how could anyone see her and not think about the 33 times she had stabbed the Bible teacher, or the sick things she had said afterwards? How could she see herself as more than that?

Her friend Ormeshia said that Paula seemed to be in bad shape one day this past spring. “And she said, ‘Friend, I can’t do it no more.’ She kept touching her hand to her chest, saying, ‘It’s on the inside.'” The following morning, May 26, 2015, Paula shot herself in a nearby park.

In her NY Times article, Linn explains that Paula must have hid her “demons” well: Her boss had reported, just a month earlier, that Paula was “thriving” and “full of joy.” Paula’s sister searched for an explanation: “Bill Pelke forgave her, but she couldn’t forgive herself. She said she felt like she didn’t deserve to live.” Linn continues:

Ms. Cooper needed help to survive her despair over the crime. Her sister said she thought about it every day. When her victim’s grandson visited her in prison, he forgave her, and hugged her. “You’ve taken a burden off me,” she told him. In the end, there were too many others to lift.

Bill Pelke is devastated by this turn of events, as am I. I know that it’s hard, maybe even impossible, to believe that God really does love us despite our stains–despite our murders and fears and unrelenting moment-by-moment denial of him. But that’s what the text promises. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8.37-39). Even though we are afraid of ourselves and the destruction we wreak, God isn’t. He’s the one person who can look a murderer straight in the face and, because of the cross, see not a murderer but a shining saint, white as snow, good as God himself.

But it can be impossible to believe, moment to moment. In one of the final scenes in Dead Man Walking, Susan Sarandon — as Helen Prajean — leans into the prison bars, crying. She reminds us that “there are spaces of sorrow that only God can touch.”