INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A woman who was sentenced to death at age 16 for taking part in the torture and murder of a 78-year-old bible studies teacher was released from an Indiana prison Monday after growing to middle age behind bars.
Paula Cooper, whose 1986 death sentence enraged human rights activists and drew a plea for clemency from Pope John Paul II, left the state prison quietly in a state-owned van and wearing donated clothing, Department of Correction spokesman Doug Garrison said.
As is customary, 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 — one only 14 —received lighter sentences, but Cooper confessed to the killing and was sentenced to death by a judge who opposed capital punishment, said former prosecutor Jack Crawford, who sought the death penalty for Cooper. Crawford is now a defense lawyer in Indianapolis and no longer supports capital punishment.
“She sat on her, slicing her,” Crawford said. “This was a torture crime.”
The following year, Cooper became the country’s youngest death row inmate.
The sentencing of a 16-year-old to death enraged human rights activists in the U.S. and Europe. Pope John Paul II urged that Cooper be granted clemency in 1987, and in 1988 a priest brought a petition to Indianapolis with more than 2 million signatures protesting Cooper’s sentence.
“There were like protests, ‘Save Paula Cooper,’ even in Europe it was a rallying cry,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. “Her case really became a symbol of the death penalty.”