Once the youngest ever on death row, woman educates herself and is released
ABOVE PHOTO: Paula Cooper
By Darrell Padgett
After being the youngest child in the United States condemned to die by execution in 1986, Paula Cooper, now 43 years of age, walked out of prison lasr week after having been imprisoned for 28 years.
At 15, Cooper and three other juvenile girls were involved with the murder of Ruth Pelke, a 78-year-old Bible school teacher. Cooper and her cohorts gained entrance into Pelke’s home by exaggerating interest in Pelke’s Bible classes. Upon entering the home, Cooper pushed the victim to the floor, hit her on the head with a vase, and began stabbing the victim with a butcher knife. The evidence revealed that Pelke was stabbed 33 times. Subsequently, Cooper and her cohorts ransacked the victim’s Gary, Indianapolis, home. They left the scene of the crime with the victim’s car and $10 in cash. Cooper confessed to the crime.
The prosecution sought the death penalty for Cooper, only and, Cooper’s three other cohorts received prison sentences ranging from 25 to 60 years. In 1986, Cooper was convicted and sentenced to die. During this time, Cooper was the youngest prisoner in the United States to be committed to a cage on death row. As a result, the Indiana state legislature enacted a law that prohibited the execution of a defendant that was under 16 years of age at the time of a capital crime.
The bill was named after Paula Cooper. But, the prosecution argued that the new legislation was not retroactive and therefore not applicable to Cooper. Moreover, the sponsors of the new legislation openly admitted that the legislation was designed not to preclude the state from killing Cooper. As a consequence, various advocates decried the decision as evidence of a racist criminal justice system.
In 1987, Pope John Paul II advocated that Cooper should be given clemency. And in 1988 a priest brought a petition from Italy to Indianapolis that contained more than 2 million signatures decrying Cooper’s death sentence.
Ultimately, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court of Indiana. The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that to sentence Cooper to death for a crime committed when she was 15 would amount to a violation of the Eighth Amendment provision against cruel and unusual punishment. In so doing, the Court relied on Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S., 108 S.Ct. 2687, 101 L.Ed.2d 702 (1988), wherein a majority of the United States Supreme Court vacated a death sentence based on facts comparable to those in Cooper. In sum, in 1988, the Indiana Supreme Court vacated Cooper’s death sentence and ordered a prison term of 60 years. Because of Cooper’s rehabilitation and her desire to educate herself, she was released from prison early.
On May 11, 2001, Cooper earned a bachelor’s degree in humanities, with a minor in psychology, from Martin University. She contributes her desire to educate herself while in prison as the events that changed her from the individual that she once was to the person that walked through the prison gates recently.
The author, Darrell Padgett, served more than 20 years in federal prison after being arrested for the distribution of one gram of crack cocaine. Padgett was successful in persuading a Senior United States District Judge to reduce his 37.5 year sentence on two occasions. His second reduction in sentence resulted in an immediate release from prison. While incarcerated, Padgett earned an Associates degree with honors in Paralegal Studies. Currently, Padgett is in his senior year as a bachelor’s degree student at Columbia Southern University majoring in Criminal Justice. Additionally, he is also the owner of Insight Into Prison Consultants.
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