Murder of Ruth Pelke

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"Paula Cooper" redirects here. For art gallery, see Paula Cooper Gallery.

Paula Cooper (born August 25, 1969[1] in Gary, Indiana, United States) was sentenced to death by electrocution on July 11, 1986 for the murder and torture of 78-year-old Ruth Pelke. Cooper stabbed Pelke 33 times with a butcher knife before stealing ten dollars and Pelke's car. Because Cooper was only 15 at the time of the murder, her 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] On June 17, 2013, Cooper was released from Rockville Correctional Facility.[3]

Sentencing and fallout[edit]

Cooper's public defender advised her 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 Cooper was a chronic runaway who had been physically abused and forced to watch the rape of her mother and violent assaults by her father. The defense also stated that Cooper's mother had attempted to kill her at one point. Cooper was found guilty, and Judge James Kimbrough imposed the death penalty.[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 that 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.[6]

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

Judge Kimbrough 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 years old. Although the change was a reaction to Cooper's case, the legislature made it clear that 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 Cooper's 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).[7]


Cooper earned a GED and took college correspondence courses while in prison.[8] Although she was sentenced to 60 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[9] 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.[10]

Paula Cooper was released on June 17, 2013, after serving twenty-six years, three weeks, and three days. She was forty-three at the time of her release.


  1. ^ "Prosecution page". Retrieved 2007-05-26. 
  2. ^ a b "Woman's Execution for Murder at 15 Is Barred". Associated Press. 1989-07-13. 
  3. ^ Evans, Tim (2013-06-16). "Ind. woman sentenced to death at 16 to leave prison". USA Today. Retrieved 17 June 2013. 
  4. ^ a b "Death Sentence At 16 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. ^ "Historical Background" in "Paula Cooper Case Records, 1986-1989, Collection Guide" (PDF). Indiana Historical Society. Retrieved 2012-11-05. 
  7. ^ "Topics of The Times; A Murderous Child". New York Times. 1989-07-17. p. 16A. 
  8. ^ Penn, Mary Sue (May 1995). "Leaven of Forgiveness". Sojourner's Magazine. Retrieved 2007-05-26. 
  9. ^
  10. ^ " description". Retrieved 2007-05-26. 

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