Paula Cooper free after 1985 Gary murder conviction at 15

In this 1985 photo provided by the Lake County, Ind., Police Department is Paula Cooper who was sentenced to death when she was 15 after stabbing a 78-year-old Bible school teacher 33 times during a 1985 robbery in Gary, Ind. ((AP Photo/Lake County Police Depatmrnt via The Indianapolis Star))
June 17, 2013 3:18:44 PM PDT
An Indiana woman is free after serving time for the 1985 murder of a bible school teacher in Gary Indiana. Paula Cooper, now 43-years old, was sentenced to death for murder at age 16.

Her death sentence for the stabbing death of Ruth Pelke enraged human rights activists and even caused Pope John Paul II to make a plea for clemency.

Many of the neighbors have changed since Ruth Pelke lived in a Gary home, but Nell Hayes recalls.

"I was here and it hurt us really bad because my kids were like their grandkids," she said.

In 1985 Pelke, then a 78-year-old bible study teacher, was found stabbed to death.

Four teens were convicted, including Paula Cooper, who was sentenced to the death penalty.

But activists and religious leaders including Pope John Paul II successfully got the teen off death row.

"She generated more sympathy internationally than she did locally or nationally. I don't know the reason for that," said former Lake County prosecutor Jack Crawford.

Pelke's grandson says he's forgiven Cooper and visited her several times in jail.

"Once my heart was touched with compassion, forgiveness took place," said Bill Pelke. "Whenever I think about my grandmother again, I never picture how she died, I picture how she lived, the beautiful wonderful person she was."

Monday, Cooper, now 43, was released from an Indiana prison.

Her sister, Rhonda LaBroi released a statement saying in part: "Paula has worked hard to change her life in the decades since the crime. She entered prison as a very troubled teenager and is leaving a reformed woman. We are proud of how much she's grown and she has all of our support as she starts this second chance at life. As always, our sincerest thoughts and prayers go out to the Pelke family."

"Paula Cooper is not the same person she was when she was 15 years old. People need to realize that people can change. I just hope they're willing to give her a second chance," Bill Pelke said.

Pelke plans to meet with Cooper in the coming days. He said he wants to take her shopping, get her a computer and give this second chance a successful fresh start.


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