In 1986, Paula Cooper was 16 years old when she was sentenced to death for stabbing Ruth Pelke, a 78-year-old Bible school teacher, to death. When she committed the murder, stabbing Pelke with a butcher knife 33 times, she was only 15. Cooper and her three accomplices stole Pelke’s car and $10. Cooper confessed to the murder and became the youngest person on death row.
Cooper’s release didn’t come without a fight. Pope John Paul II urged for Cooper’s clemency in 1987, and in 1988 a priest brought a petition to Indianapolis with more than two million signatures protesting Cooper’s sentence.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the execution of citizens under age 16 at the time of the commission of a crime couldn’t be sentenced to death, and to do so would be unconstitutional and cruel and unusual punishment. Indiana passed a state law which raised the minimum execution age from 10 to 16 years. In 1988, the Indiana Supreme Court commuted her sentence to 60 years.
Cooper, 43, was wearing donated clothing when she was released from the state prison, which is 60 miles west of Indianapolis.