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Electric chair with copy space

Source: Peter Dazeley / Getty


Paula Cooper was not only world famous because at the age of 16, she became the youngest person in Indiana sent to the electric chair, but because millions the world over rallied to have her sentence commuted.

And, with over 2 million signatures to the Indiana Supreme Court, one million to the United Nations, and even a letter to Indiana’s then governor from then Pope John Paul II, it was. After serving 27 years in prison, Cooper was released in June 2013.

Tragically, after being free for only about two years, she ended her own life on Tuesday.

Cooper, 45, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, according to The Indianapolis Star. The Marion County coroner’s office says it expects to conduct an autopsy today.

Paula Cooper became infamous in 1985 when at age 15 she was charged as the ringleader in the stabbing of 78-year-old Ruth Pelke. Cooper and three friends went to Pelke’s Gary, Indiana home with a 12-inch butcher knife, and pretended to be interested in Bible study.

The Indy Star reports:

“Paula Cooper got on top of her and kept saying to her, and this is her own admission, ‘Where’s the money, bitch?’” [former Lake County prosecutor Jack] Crawford told The Indianapolis Star during a 2013 interview. He said Cooper began slicing Pelke with the butcher knife. The woman’s last words were the Lord’s Prayer.

The other teens involved were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on robbery or murder charges: 25, 35 and 60 years. But when Cooper was sentenced, the judge invoked capital punishment.

The decision led to an immediate shift in public outrage. Cooper was among only a handful of women in Indiana to receive the death penalty, and she was the youngest in the state’s history. At the time of her sentencing, she was also the youngest Death Row inmate in the United States.

Ruth Pelke’s grandson, Bill Pelke, told The Star on Tuesday that he forgave Cooper, and who visited and corresponded Cooper often in prison. Bill Pelke said that in one of their last conversations, Cooper told him that was abused as a child and said she was scared of her pending release.

After all, she had been institutionalized since she was 16 years old and had never paid a bill or lived life as a free adult.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, prosecutors are more likely to seek the death penalty when the race of the victim is White and less likely when the race of the victim is African-American.  Blacks and Hispanics make up 56% of death row inmates, a much higher ratio than their percentage of the general population.

A tragic ending to a most tragic case.

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