(AP) — A woman who was sentenced to death at age 16 for taking part in the
torture and murder of a 78-year-old bible studies teacher was released
from an Indiana prison Monday after growing to middle age behind bars.
whose 1986 death sentence enraged human rights activists and drew a plea
for clemency from Pope John Paul II, left the state prison quietly in a
state-owned van and wearing donated clothing, Department of Correction
spokesman Doug Garrison said.
customary, the prison, about 60 miles west of Indianapolis, gave the
now-43-year-old woman $75 to help her make a fresh start.
where Cooper was being taken, Garrison said, "We have something arranged
but that's not something I can talk about."
Cooper was 15
years old when she used a butcher's knife to cut Ruth Pelke 33 times
during a robbery in Gary that ended in Pelke's death. Her three companions
— one only 14 —received lighter sentences, but Cooper confessed to the
killing and was sentenced to death by a judge who opposed capital
punishment, said former prosecutor Jack Crawford, who sought the death
penalty for Cooper. Crawford is now a defense lawyer in Indianapolis and
no longer supports capital punishment.
"She sat on
her, slicing her," Crawford said. "This was a torture crime."
year, Cooper became the country's youngest death row inmate.
of a 16-year-old to death enraged human rights activists in the U.S. and
Europe. Pope John Paul II urged that Cooper be granted clemency in 1987,
and in 1988 a priest brought a petition to Indianapolis with more than 2
million signatures protesting Cooper's sentence.
like protests, 'Save Paula Cooper,' even in Europe it was a rallying cry,"
said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information
Center in Washington. "Her case really became a symbol of the death
after Cooper was sentenced to die, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in an
unrelated case that the execution of young people who were under 16 at the
time they committed an offense was 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.
done? Twenty-four years is a long time, but I'm not sure," Crawford said.
grandson, Bill Pelke, has organized opposition to the death penalty since
about two years after her murder. His grandmother, he said, would have
been "appalled" at a young girl being sentenced to die.
Pelke, who now
lives in Anchorage, Alaska, was in Indiana Monday for Cooper's release,
but missed it. He said he expects Cooper to phone him sometime in the next
In 2005, the
U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to execute anyone who is
younger than 18 years when they commit an offense.
Pearson, who was Indiana's attorney general when Cooper appealed to the
state Supreme Court, said research now shows that the human brain doesn't
fully mature until age 24.
"So kids can
do a lot of things they wouldn't do if they were an adult," Pearson said.
sentence was reduced due to her behavior in prison, where she earned a
bachelor's degree. She will remain on parole for a few years, Garrison
wanting her to be successful, that's all," he said. "She needs to get back