By Mark A. Clements
Board Member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty
In 1986 Paula Cooper made international news as she became the State of Indiana youngest death row inmate as she plead guilty to murder and robbery of a white bible Sunday school teacher. Paula, is someone that was very outspoken to me and someone that fully understand the consequences of her actions after sitting before prison walls for more then 10 years of her life she begin to change. In her many letters to me she described her behavior as ‘horrifying” that landed her inside a prison. Being sentence to natural life and told that I would die behind prison walls Paula case caught my attention as she had been charged with a violent and heinous offense that made headlines for months after her arrest.
In the summer of 1985 news broke that teens had been arrested for the murder of 78 year old Ruth Pelke, a bible school teacher that often took a interest in teaching those in the community the bible. Cooper and her associates were caught in the decease woman car. Outcry surfaced nationally after it had been learned that teens had been arrested and that the victim cited the Lord’s Prayer while being stabbed. According to admission by Cooper, she knocked Pelke to the ground, climbed on top of her and repeatedly said, “Where’s the money bitch?”, according to the INDY STAR news paper and Jack Crawford the Lake County Indiana prosecutor who charged and convicted her.
First communicating with Cooper while she was a inmate at the juvenile detention center in Indiana, she described how she had been sexually mistreated to me by a family member and now guards and that she wanted to go home. During a hearing in a court in Lake County it was learned that Cooper had been sexually assaulted by guards. Despite the seriousness of the charges it was the community opinion that Cooper were being intentionally allowed to be victimized by guards assigned to oversee her because the victim was white and Cooper African American. Cooper was scrutinized by jail officials and the judge assigned to her case critically viewed her as someone who had staged the indicts to be raped to attempt to have her charges dismissed or reduced.
Communicating with Cooper she informed me that she would be sentenced to a juvenile prison until her 21st birthday, however her plea agreement went haywire as the judge refused to accept the terms sentencing her to the death penalty, becoming the youngest death row inmate in the State of Indiana. Prison officials had to create a separate area for her to be housed as she was so young and could pose security issues.
Bill Pelke, the grandson of the victim Ruth appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show to announced his forgiveness to Cooper and voiced how the system had fail the young child that could have led to her behavioral issues to want to commit murder. He communicated with Cooper leading up to her release in 2013 as she described uncertainty as she spent more time behind the wall of a prison then in society. Cooper is not alone with her uncertainty as many youth offenders that have been placed inside a prison for decades tried as adults and when released express many concerns as they have never faced basic issues that affect young adults.
Paula appeared to experience adjustment issues while at the Indiana Women State Prison, however being transferred back to the Rockville Correctional Center right outside Shelbyville, Indiana Cooper took a more serious concern toward achieving her education. I can remember her excitement as she achieved her G.E.D. and subsequently college education. She was someone that was very determined to achieve, she wanted to show society that she had changed. In one of the last correspondences wrote to Paula by me in 2011 after arriving back from Georgia involving Troy Davis, I described a criminal justice system that was unwilling to accept their own flaws and that men and women in society that were once inside a prison must labor extra harder to achieve on any level of success.
When question by media who would be the likely candidates they should speak with concerning youth sentence as adults I have always mention Paula Cooper and Joseph Rodriguez. I learned so much through my letters and conversations with Paula, examining her plight to determine the merit of a report released by Northwestern University “Categorically Less Culpable” children sentence to life without possibility of Parole in Illinois-2008. The report found that “children are categorically less culpable then adults”. Noting that through recent brain-scanning research, scientists have confined that because children’s brains are not yet fully developed, they lack the impulse control of their adult counterparts and are more vulnerable to peer pressure. While this report found that children are capable of change, it did not address in detail worthy of note someone released from a prison such as Cooper who suffered trauma from birth, inside a prison and what would be their survival rates.
Her mother’s death appeared to affect her, she changed, she became more serious about life and developed into someone that only wanted to help others. I don’t know what happen to her after being released but when I learned that she had been released I was hoping a agency involving juvenile issues would hire her. I have grew to learn that while people are incarcerated they make all sorts of promise’s, she promised to contact me when she was released and stable. I never received a telephone call from her after her release, but remained to hold on to the belief that she would service the interest of juvenile justice, doing it some good. Her story has to be mind blowing, placed on death row at age 16 and viewed as a “menace to society” that was raped while in jail custody, sentence to die despite apologizing in open court for her behavior and was told by a judge her penalty warranted death.
Cooper sentence being overturn by the Indiana Supreme Court afforded her opportunity to change and to take advantage of rehabilitative opportunities. I seen great potential in this woman that most people would call a criminal who only changed to gain something from the system, I seen charge in her and the true definition of Miller Vs. Alabama where that the U.S. Supreme court ruled “that sentencing courts’ discretion must be exercised in an informed and thoughtful way that acknowledges that children are biologically different than adults and less responsible for their wrongdoing, and that the courts should provide the individuals affected by the ruling a meaningful opportunity to show they have rehabilitated themselves and are appropriate candidates for release.” Paula, is someone that fought and beat the odds to not have mitigation for release.
This death has to be viewed a “tragedy” when considering that she had no incentive to do good or bad. After her death sentence was overturned she was sentence to 60 years shortly thereafter under no obligation to achieve, but she achieved gaining the State’s highest education level from behind the walls of a prison. This has to be viewed as something pretty remarkable.
This explores a new chapter with the release of kids that are sentence to long term sentencing, once released should not the re-entry group be obligated by State Law to apply special attention toward those that are released who were juvenile offenders upon entry to the Department of Corrections. Hurdles that some of these people must face are overwhelmingly against them, incarceration comes with a cost of causing psychological scars that may not be easy to treat. However, Paula was able to do what most in her situation have not been able to achieve their freedom after being sentence to a prison for a heinous crime, placed on death row, and told that she would die in prison. She has to be viewed as someone who beat the odds achieving a education in which many felt she was not capable of receiving in 1986. She did a complete 360 in her life making it even moreso difficult to accept her death caused by her own hand, a woman that overcame so many difficult odd’s, and now her life ends with a gun shot.
There is little doubt that perhaps a entire generation missed out on a true reformer!, some one that has been where some kids will end up who could have best served as a motivator speaker to at risk youth using her pass and presence as a target for kids to do better. Residing in a society that is faced with much affects of incarceration in which most in society have no realistically mindset to deal with, not understanding traumatizaion brought on as the result of incarceration that has over 2.3 million men and women locked behind the walls of a U.S. prison. While in prison Cooper wrote poems dealing with her imprisonment as her case caught the attention of even Pope John Paul II, the United nations which received one million signatures with Indiana Supreme Court receiving over two million signatures calling for her release off death row.
Many have someone that has been incarcerated a decade or more behind prison walls, that’s a sign that they may need special services to be able to make transition back into society. Prisons create a lot of baggage, stress and strain where that many are deny mental health treatment for years before released and able to receive the services in which is provided to many in society. Hidden mental illness has to be among one of the greatest affects of ex-incarcerated people who have been taught how to survive behind the walls of a prison, lacking all education in most cases how to adjust back to society. Cooper experienced hell nearly from the start of birth being sexually assaulted by a father and experiencing two rapes while incarcerated. Thousands will read this article not understanding that today’s long term inmates are denied the basic’s how to survive beyond the walls of a prison. Cries for the need of educators and mental health professionals have went ignored for many years, causing many who were kids to now suffer once released from the norms of a prison environment where that they have grew dependent.
Cooper who’s case birthed a movement to just save her life is now dead at age 45 from a self-inflicted gun shot wound. No immediate family to Cooper could be reached for comment. Born August 25, 1969 in Gary, Indiana to May 26, 2015 Indianapolis, Indiana.