Death row inmate at 16, later freed, she can't escape past
By SHARON COHEN, AP National Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — She was determined to make good on her second chance, to become a profile of redemption. A death row inmate at 16, Paula Cooper had won a reprieve and tried to rebuild her life.
And she might have achieved her happy ending — if not for guilt that tormented her and shame that wouldn't go away.
Thirty years ago, Cooper murdered an elderly Bible teacher. She pleaded guilty and after her death sentence was set aside, she served 27 years in prison. In 2013, she was released, a middle-aged woman on her own for the first time.
She learned to write a check, use a cell phone, manage a household. She found a good job and was respected by co-workers. She had many supporters — even, amazingly, her victim's grandson. She fell in love and planned to marry.
But she also knew some people would never forgive her. She understood. She couldn't forgive herself.
"I have taken a life and never felt worthy," she wrote her fiance in late May, one of a series of goodbyes to loved ones.
Then, sitting down near a tree, Cooper pointed a handgun at her head and pulled the trigger.
"I have remorse. ... I can't explain what happened. ... I can't just sit here and say I'm sorry. ... Sorry isn't good enough for me. And sorry isn't good enough for you." — Paula Cooper at her 1986 sentencing.
It was planned as a robbery.
On May 14, 1985, Cooper, then 15, and three other girls, knocked on the door of Ruth Pelke's house in Gary, Indiana, pretending to be interested in Scripture lessons. In the chaos that followed, Cooper, armed with a 12-inch knife, stabbed the 78-year-old widow 33 times.
During sentencing, Cooper's older sister, Rhonda testified about their turbulent upbringing. She said her stepfather, now deceased, disciplined them with beatings. She also described how their mother once turned on the car in the garage and announced they were going to heaven. (Cooper's mother declined to be interviewed.)
A defense psychologist who'd interviewed Cooper found "evidence of a major personality disorder" and also noted her traumatic childhood.
So did Judge James Kimbrough. But the law, he said, gave him no choice. Cooper became one of the youngest juveniles in America on death row.
"Just forgive me. ... I'm not an evil person ... I'm just someone who is real angry, angry with life & all the people around me ... I am still human & God forgives me." — Cooper in a 1986 letter to Bill Pelke, grandson of her victim.
Four months into her sentence, Cooper forged a most improbable, life-changing friendship.
It began when Bill Pelke was thinking about his beloved Nana's unwavering faith. He became convinced she'd have compassion for Cooper and be appalled by her sentence. He asked God, he says, for that same compassion and when his prayer was answered, he decided to fight to spare Cooper's life.
He became an anti-death penalty activist, traveling to Rome, speaking about his forgiveness of Cooper in a nation where a "save Paula" campaign had already been launched. Pope John Paul II appealed for clemency.
Pelke also wrote Cooper, the first of hundreds of letters they'd exchange over decades. And he visited her 14 times in prison.
In 1989, the Indiana Supreme Court vacated her execution, citing a recent state law and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on juvenile death sentences. Cooper's new sentence was 60 years.
Though her life was spared, Cooper struggled as an inmate and got in trouble. She spent three years on and off in segregation for assaulting a prison worker.
But she matured, too, earning a bachelor's degree in humanities from Martin University in Indianapolis.
"She learned a lot of life lessons in prison," says Ormeshia Linton, who met Cooper there. "As more people put faith and trust in her, she started believing in herself."
Cooper participated in several programs; her favorite was culinary arts.
As her sentence was ending — she got a day off for each one served and credit for her degree — Cooper wrote Pelke, anxious about her future and still questioning what she'd done.
"Maybe it was all the beatings but after almost 30 years ... no one has ever tried to help figure it out & and if anyone thinks prison is the real answer people are mistaken." — Cooper's 2010 letter.
Freedom was exhilarating and terrifying, too.
Unaccustomed to many choices, Cooper sometimes fled the grocery while shopping. Driving was difficult, too. She got lost easily.
Her sister, Rhonda LaBroi, encouraged her. "I told her she just had to live her life regardless of what people say and think," LaBroi says.
But her crime weighed on her.
"She thought about it constantly ... and how she hated what she had done," LaBroi adds.
About a year after her release, Cooper reconnected with Monica Foster, who'd helped save her life as a young appellate defender. They became close friends.
Last fall, Foster, who heads the Indiana Federal Community Defender's Office, hired Cooper as a legal assistant.
She had little experience, but Cooper was tenacious, organized and "the soul of the office," Foster says. She understood the clients' vulnerabilities and fears, she adds, and "had an empathy that was off the charts."
Then came another positive turn in her life.
She met LeShon Davidson. The two became inseparable. During a Thanksgiving visit to Cooper's mother, Davidson proposed. He'd already bought Cooper a diamond engagement ring.
But there were rough patches, too. The couple had a big fight Memorial Day weekend. It followed another emotional upheaval: Cooper had hoped to accompany her mother to church for Mother's Day, friends say, but her mother said she'd need to get her pastor's approval.
"It really, really hurt her feelings," Davidson says. "She said, 'I did my crime and I thought I paid my debt to society. ... Other people that don't really know me - they accept me, but my own mother she won't let the past just die.'"
"I must have peace, peace of mind, peace in my heart." — Cooper's taped message to friends and family, found May 26, 2015.
On the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, Cooper visited Ormeshia Linton at work.
"It's the pain inside," Linton recalls Cooper saying, pointing to her heart. "I just want it to be over."
To Linton, the message was clear: "I don't think she ever felt she deserved a second chance. It was guilt."
On May 26, after spending a few days with Linton and her husband, Cooper slipped out of their house, leaving four goodbye notes and a taped farewell.
In her note to Davidson, she wrote:
"I said my prayer and asked God if it were OK and he said yes, he is mad, but understands. I can't stay with this misery inside I fight every day, this voice that tells me I'll never be happy."
Cooper's sister, fiance, co-workers and friends held a memorial.
They watched a slide show of Cooper at her college graduation, at work, with loved ones. This was the life they wanted to remember — not the ghastly beginning or the end, but the redemption and joy in-between.
There were tears, even though Cooper forbade them in her tape.
"I don't want people crying and having a lot of regrets feeling they could have did more," she said. "There was nothing more anybody could do. It's time."
Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Associated Press