Paula Cooper, the Indiana woman who was served the death penalty at 16 for killing an elderly Bible school teacher, to become the youngest death row inmate in the U.S. at the time, is likely to be released on Monday after serving 28 years in prison.
Cooper was taken off death row after the state's Supreme Court intervened in 1989 and reduced her sentence to 60 years. Her early release from the Rockville Correctional Facility has been attributed to her good behavior in prison and to an Indiana law that grants a day’s credit for every day served.
Cooper, now 43, was only 15 when she and three other teenage girls turned up at Ruth Pelke’s house on May 14, 1985, with the intention of robbing the 78-year-old teacher. Once inside, Cooper stabbed Pelke 33 times with a butcher’s knife while the other two girls ransacked the house. The fourth teenager waited outside as a lookout.
Cooper’s accomplices received prison terms extending up to 60 years, but the teenager was charged with murder and sentenced to die after she admitted to killing the Bible teacher. Cooper sentencing, according to Associated Press, sparked international protests, including a clemency plea from Pope John Paul II.
Following widespread opposition to Cooper’s death penalty verdict, and citing a U.S. Supreme Court’s decision barring the execution of juveniles under 16 at the time of the crime, the Indiana Supreme Court issued orders that Cooper be sentenced to 60 years in prison.
"People still know about this case," Indianapolis Attorney Jack Crawford, who was the Lake County prosecutor during Cooper's murder trial, told the Indianapolis Star. "The name Paula Cooper still resonates, and she's going to attract some attention when she is released."
William R. Pelke, Ruth Pelke's grandson, who had been in touch with Cooper since the time she was imprisoned, said he has forgiven her for the crime. He was among the many who urged the court to spare Cooper from being executed.
“My main concern is seeing her get settled and find a job,” he told the Star.