Paula Cooper was a 15-year old street tough from Gary, Indiana when she took part in the 1986 robbery and murder of a 78-year old Bible school teacher named Ruth Pelke, stabbing the woman 33 times. Her three partners in the crime all received lengthy prison sentences after pleading guilty, but even though she also plead guilty, Paula Cooper was sentenced to death and sent to the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis.
The Ultimate Price
The Indiana Women’s Prison was the first of its kind in our country, and was also the first maximum-security women’s facility in the United States. It also had the distinction of hiring the first female warden in American prison history. The death penalty has always been a part of Indiana legal lore except during a brief spell in the 1970s. One of the peculiarities of the state law was the fact that children as young as 10 could be charged with murder and sentenced to death.
In Cooper’s case, this meant death by the electric chair, considered by some to be cruel and unusual punishment. This was at a turning point in the way the world viewed capital punishment; France had barely discontinued use of the Guillotine, and Utah was less than a decade removed from executing murderer Gary Gilmore by way of firing squad. The use of lethal injection had yet to become widespread, with most states using either electrocution or the gas chamber as means of execution.
Following a 60 Minutes expose on the teenage death row inmate, an outpouring of protest began on Cooper’s behalf, beseeching the Indiana courts for mercy in the form of commutation. Even the grandson of her victim made public expressions of forgiveness toward her. Even Pope John Paul II lobbied on behalf, and in 1989, her sentenced to 60 years; with time off for good behavior and time served, she will be eligible for parole in 2013. In this way, Paula Cooper avoided being the only female inmate to be executed since 1900.