Ind. woman condemned for killing at 15 released from prison

ROCKVILLE, Ind. - A woman who was sentenced to death at age 16 after she confessed to her part in the torture and murder of a 78-year-old bible studies teacher has been released from an Indiana prison after spending a quarter century behind bars.

Paula Cooper, whose death sentence in 1986 enraged human rights activists and drew a plea for clemency from Pope John Paul II, left the state prison quietly in a state vehicle and wearing donated clothing, Department of Correction spokesman Doug Garrison said.

The prison, about 60 miles west of Indianapolis, gave the now-43-year-old woman $75 to help her make a fresh start.

When asked 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 received lighter sentences but Cooper confessed to the killing and in 1986, at age 16, she became the youngest person on death row in the country.

Jack Crawford, who was the Lake County prosecutor at the time of Cooper's trial, said he thought the crime warranted the death penalty.

"Torturing her, asking her where she hid her money. She didn't have any. Slicing her, and cutting her and stabbing her 30 times and then driving a butcher knife through her chest... I felt I had no choice under existing law," Crawford said.

Shortly after, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people who were under 16 at the time they committed an offense could not be sentenced to death, saying it counted as 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.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to execute anyone who is younger than 18 years when they commit an offense.

Cooper's 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 said.

"We're just wanting her to be successful, that's all," he said. "She needs to get back to living."

Monica Foster, one of Cooper's appeal attorneys, said it will be tough for her client to adjust to living outside prison.

"She hasn't had the opportunity for cooking for herself, for managing her finances. For the things that we learn in our teens and our 20s," Foster said. "She has missed all of that. She is going to need a lot of support from people, and I think she has that support, for her to learn those things and for her to rejoin society."


Follow Derrik Thomas on Twitter: @derrikthomas

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