RICH JAMES: A look at life after the death penalty

2013-06-23T00:00:00Z 2013-06-29T18:01:10Z RICH JAMES: A look at life after the death penalty nwitimes.com
June 23, 2013 12:00 am  • 

We likely will argue the merits of the death penalty until the end of time.

That discussion surely will go on even after every nation on Earth has said execution is wrong.

And, yes, I think that will happen. So does Bill Pelke, who has been working tirelessly against the death penalty since Paula Cooper was sentenced to die for the 1985 murder of his grandmother, Ruth Pelke.

Cooper was 15 when she and three others killed Pelke, 77, in her Glen Park home. It was a robbery gone bad. They got $10.

Because of the efforts of Pelke and others, Cooper had her death sentence commuted to 60 years when she was 19 years old.

When Lake Criminal Division Judge James Kimbrough sentenced Cooper to death, Indiana law allowed the death sentence for anyone at least 10 years old. That’s savage.

Most of those involved in the Cooper case have moved on.

Kimbrough died in a car accident two years after the sentencing.

Prosecutor Jack Crawford became director of the Indiana Lottery only to leave in disgrace because of an illicit affair. Today, he is a successful Indianapolis lawyer.

Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard, who wrote the opinion releasing Cooper from death row, recently retired.

Merrillville attorney William Touchette, who represented Cooper at the change of sentence hearing, continues to practice law.

State Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, fought to have the age for the death penalty raised to 18 but had to settle for 16. She remains in the Legislature.

And, yes, it still is legal to execute people in Indiana.

Bill Pelke became an international celebrity of sorts and remains so today.

But it was obvious at lunch last week that he hasn’t let fame go to his head.

Pelke continues his push against the death penalty through Journey of Hope — From Violence to Healing, the organization he started in 1993.

Pelke is retired from Bethlehem Steel and lives in Alaska.

Today he mostly travels and speaks against the death penalty. The demand for his message hasn’t lessened since Cooper was moved from death row.

Pelke was in Indiana last week hoping to greet Cooper at the prison gates as she became a free woman for the first time as an adult. Twenty-eight of her 43 years have been spent in prison.

But Pelke hasn’t been able to see Cooper. Her mother made it known that Pelke wasn’t welcome at Paula’s release from prison. That’s the same mother who refused to attend Cooper’s sentencing.

“Her mother doesn’t like me, doesn’t trust me,” Pelke told me.

That’s sad. Pelke has been a friend and inspiration for Cooper all these years. He deserved better last week.

So did Paula Cooper.

Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. Email him at rjames@219.com. The opinions are the writer’s.

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