From Death Row at 16 to Suicide at 45: The Life and Death of Paula Cooper

When Indiana sentenced Paula Cooper to die in 1986, she became the youngest person on death row and her case sparked a global movement.

JUST BEFORE 8 p.m. this past Memorial Day, 45-year-old Paula Cooper decided she wanted to go shopping for a new outfit. “She wanted to go to Rainbow,” her friend Ormeshia Linton recalled, referring to the chain that sells youthful clothes and accessories. “I said, ‘Rainbow’s closed, baby. It’s Memorial Day. The furthest we’re gonna get is Walmart.’” So that’s where they went.

Ormeshia was worried about her friend. The two had been close since they met at an Indiana prison in 1995. Paula had been there for almost a decade when Ormeshia arrived at Rockville Correctional Facility facing 30 years on drug charges, and she immediately set about taking care of the new girl, offering to do her hair. Ormeshia was surprised. On the outside, Paula Cooper was known only for her crime, an infamous murder she had committed at 15. But at Rockville, for all her notoriety, she had a reputation for kindness. She used to put together small packs of noodles and other food items for women who didn’t have money to spend at the commissary. When Ormeshia and Paula were eventually released, in 2010 and 2013, respectively, it was Paula who would need help navigating the world around her. By then, she was 43 years old, and had been in prison her whole adult life.

Before they ended up at Walmart that Monday night, Ormeshia had received a phone call from Paula. “I knew something was wrong with her,” Ormeshia said. She invited her to come by during her lunch break at work. “Of course she got lost.” Paula still didn’t know her way around Indianapolis. She relied on her GPS for everything — and she was a terrible driver. From her window, Ormeshia could see Paula struggling to find the address. When she finally arrived and they sat down at a table, Paula began to sob uncontrollably. “It was like she was a child … like she was defeated and depleted,” Ormeshia said. “And she said, ‘Friend, I can’t do it no more.’” She kept touching her hand to her chest, saying, “It’s on the inside.” Ormeshia didn’t want to pry — Paula was a private person — and she figured there was trouble with Paula’s fiancé. She invited Paula to stay with her for a few days, in a spare room of her new house. Later, at Walmart, Paula seemed in better spirits. She bought a new outfit: gray khaki pants; a gray, black and white top; and black Dr. Scholl’s sandals. She even bought new underwear — satin panties lined with lace. Back at the house, Paula asked Ormeshia for some paper and envelopes, then spent some time out on the patio, smoking cigarettes and writing.

It was not until early the next morning, May 26, when Ormeshia awoke to find Paula gone, the tags to her new clothes on the bed, that the pieces would start to fall into place. Ormeshia’s husband went down to the kitchen and “I hear him yelling my name. ‘Meshia! Meshia!’” She went downstairs “and he hands me three envelopes and a letter for myself. And I read the first part of my letter and I dropped it. And I said, ‘Let’s go.’”

Ormeshia didn’t know where, exactly. But the letters made Paula’s intentions clear. “She said she wanted to go to where no eyes could see and hear the birds chirp for one last time and see the sun come up,” she said. Later that day, after an unsuccessful search for her friend, Ormeshia spoke to a police officer over the phone. She learned that Paula had been found under a tree on the north side of the city, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot to her head.

NEWS OF PAULA COOPER’S suicide spread quickly in Indiana, where her 2013 release had been a big event. She was once famous for being the youngest death row prisoner in the country: a girl condemned at 16 to the electric chair for the brutal stabbing death of a 77-year-old Bible school teacher named Ruth Pelke. Three other teenage girls took part in the 1985 crime — they came away with $10 and the elderly woman’s car — but Paula was described as the ringleader by her co-defendants. Only she was sent to death row.

Her sentence was controversial. It had only been 10 years since Gregg v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that restarted executions following a four-year moratorium — imposed partly over concerns that the death penalty was racially biased. It was hard to imagine a white child receiving such a harsh punishment, and many believed it was racially motivated. Others felt Paula was far too young to be sentenced to die. But in 1986, Indiana law said that defendants as young as 10 years old could be tried as adults, and thus face the death penalty. Soon thereafter, the Supreme Court struck down death sentences for kids who committed their crimes before age 16. But it would take almost 30 years for the Court to ban the death penalty for juveniles altogether, in 2005.

The Paula Cooper case became an international cause célèbre. Amnesty International campaigned for her, 2 million petitions poured into the Indiana Supreme Court, and Pope John Paul II sent an emissary from the Vatican, asking that her life be spared. But one of Paula’s earliest and most unlikely supporters was an Indiana steelworker named Bill Pelke — Ruth Pelke’s grandson. A young devout Christian and Vietnam veteran, Bill had seen his father scrubbing the blood from the walls and carpet in his grandmother’s house. Yet he soon came to believe that his Nana would not have wanted to see this young girl executed. He was particularly haunted by the memory of Paula Cooper’s own grandfather on the day she was sentenced to die. As he would later recount in a 2003 memoir, neither Paula’s mother or father attended the 1986 hearing, but her grandfather had been escorted out of the courtroom, wailing, “They are going to kill my baby!” Pelke later went to visit him and the two looked at photo albums of Paula and her sister, Rhonda. The girls had grown up amid harrowing abuse and neglect. They were beaten with electrical cords and had witnessed their father beat and rape their mother, Gloria. Once, Gloria told the girls they were going to see Jesus, then turned on the car in the garage until they passed out from carbon monoxide. Yet all three survived.

The more Bill learned about Paula, the more he was certain his grandmother would have forgiven her. He tried to visit her in prison, but was denied permission — it was against policy to allow convicted murderers to see members of their victim’s family. So Bill and Paula wrote letters. Their correspondence would last years. When 19-year-old Paula’s death sentence was commuted to 60 years in July 1989, Bill’s first words were, “Praise the Lord!” And by the time she was released on good behavior, on June 17, 2013, neither was the same person they had been in 1985. Paula was a grown women who had earned her GED, multiple degrees, and the support of prisoners and activists alike. Bill, now in his 60s, had founded Journey of Hope: From Violence to Healing, one of the most influential anti-death penalty groups in the country, led by victims of crime. He had also gained permission to see Paula, visiting her 14 times.

NOBODY THOUGHT Paula’s reentry would be easy. “My main concern is seeing her get settled and find a job,” Bill told USA Today on the eve of her release, declining further comment. He worried that press attention would make a challenging adjustment that much harder. Indeed, the day she left prison, cameras waited in the parking lot, so Paula was escorted out back, then taken to an undisclosed location. There were reports of death threats. “People were really ugly about it,” her longtime attorney, Monica Foster, recalled.

Traditionally, a person leaving prison in Indiana has been provided with bus fare and a check for $75. Paula had more support by comparison — the archbishop of Indianapolis helped her find a place to live — yet she was completely overwhelmed. She had never been an adult in the world — let alone in 2013. Three days after leaving prison, Paula called her friend Melissa Marble, nicknamed Precious, who lived in Marion, Indiana. “She was like, Precious, you need to get here,” Melissa recalled. Melissa ended up moving to Indianapolis to help her friend. “We were close and I wanted to be there for Paula,” she said.

Melissa told the story in her living room in Indianapolis. It was the first Saturday in June, less than two weeks after Paula’s suicide. She had a box of tissues on the couch next to her, and Ormeshia Linton sat in a chair to her left. The two women had never met in person, yet they finished each other’s sentences as they remembered their friend. Melissa had met Paula in 1993 while imprisoned on drug charges. She admired her smile, her empathy toward prisoners who were shunned by others because of their crimes. One woman had come to Rockville after killing her baby, and “people said a lot of negative things to her all the time,” Melissa said, admitting, “I did, too.” But Paula “made an effort to make sure that this girl felt comfortable being there.”

As Paula began to get her life in order, Melissa saw her less frequently. Paula had never had a job outside of prison, but she was skilled in the kitchen. She was soon hired at Five Guys by a manager who prioritized offering employment to former felons. Before long, Paula was a manager herself. Later, she became a legal assistant at the Indiana Federal Community Defenders, where she worked alongside Monica Foster, the lawyer who had defended her since she was a teenager. The two began speaking to college classes. “She was nervous about public speaking,” Foster told me over the phone. But she wanted to give back to the community, particularly by talking to young people. “She felt like she could say things to them that other adults could not say.”

Foster did not hide her anguish over Paula’s death. “It’s just completely heartbreaking,” she said. The office is not the same without her. Paula was relentlessly cheerful — “We had no idea that she was struggling as she was.” In a tribute on the group’s website, Foster wrote: “We are uncertain why but deeply sad that Paula reached a place that was so dark that she could not call out for help. We would have been there.”

IN MANY WAYS, Paula was lucky compared to others who leave prison after so much time. She had meaningful work, dedicated advocates, her sister Rhonda (her “rock”) and at least a few close relationships. But her sunny disposition concealed a lot of pain. “I think Paula did a lot of pretending,” Melissa said. “She was very good at making you think she was okay.” Beneath the surface was unaddressed trauma dating back decades, from her abusive childhood to alleged sexual assaults by multiple guards on death row. (The rumor at the time, Bill Pelke wrote in his book, was that Paula was trying to get pregnant so that she would be spared from execution.) When Monica Foster first met Paula as a young attorney, “nobody had bothered to tell her that she wasn’t going to be taken out of her cell and executed on a whim.” The teenager thought she could be taken to the electric chair at any moment. “She was really scared.”

The torment didn’t end after her death sentence was commuted. On one occasion, after getting in a fight with a guard, Paula spent three years in solitary confinement or “lock” — 23 hours a day in a cell the size of a bathroom. The punishment was unusually long, lasting from 1995 to 1998. “I’ve done time in lock myself,” Melissa said. Even after a short time in solitary, “you are not the same when you come down.”

Everyone I spoke to said that the one thing Paula needed most — as much as housing or a job — was psychological help. “I’ve come to believe that anybody who goes in at that age and for that amount of time needs mental heath treatment,” Foster told me. “Whether they think they need it or not.”

“The mental part, I think, is a big reason why we’re sitting here,” Melissa said. “The abuse at home with the parents, the abuse in prison, a long time in lock … She carried all of that. Including her crime.” Her crime was a big part of it. To most of the world, no matter what else she did, it had defined her since she was 15. Bill Pelke might have forgiven her — even launched a movement based on forgiveness. But friends say Paula did not feel worthy of this. She had never forgiven herself.

TWO WEEKS AFTER Paula died, Bill Pelke traveled from Alaska, where he lives, back home to Indiana, for a private memorial service. The small gathering will take place this weekend, in the backyard garden at the home of at Monica Foster, where Paula had wished to get married. Bill will speak — on Facebook, he asked for prayers. After all these years, he never got a chance to see Paula after she got out. She had been told not to have contact with her victim’s family. The system continued to segregate their experiences into fixed, irreconcilable categories.

Yet Paula’s legacy was to bridge this separation, to humanize those we call monsters. “There would be no Journey of Hope without Paula Cooper,” Bill said firmly. “It’s just amazing how many lives she touched.”

Monica Foster counts among them the clients who reached Paula on the phone in her office, day in and day out. She was the first point of contact for people seeking help, some in their darkest hours. Paula “was able to make them feel that they had dignity. She got who they were.”

Photo: Sarah Tompkins/The Times/AP

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