Paula Cooper, sentenced to death as a teenager, got out of prison today after more than a quarter of a century and was invited to shop with the grandson of the elderly Bible studies teacher she was convicted of killing.
Bill Pelke said he’s been on a “journey” of practicing compassion and forgiveness since his grandmother, Ruth Pelke, 78, was stabbed to death 33 times in her home during a 1985 robbery. He said he hopes to take Cooper, now 43, shopping for clothes as she starts her new life outside of prison.
“I’m hoping we’ll get together for a meal and do some shopping. I have a friend who wants to buy her a couple of outfits,” Pelke told ABCNews.com.
He said Cooper sent him an email from the prison system before her release and that he expects a phone call from her in the next few days.
“It’s been a long journey, that’s for sure, but what I learned about love and compassion and forgiveness in 1986 has just kept me going,” Pelke said.
Cooper, who was 15 at the time of the murder, was sentenced to death in 1986 while her three friends received lighter prison sentences.
Because of Cooper’s age, the sentence sparked outrage and got the attention of Pope John Paul II, who called for clemency for the teen.
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people under the age of 16 at the time they committed a crime could not be sentenced to death, the Indiana Supreme Court commuted Cooper’s sentence to 60 years in prison and she was taken off death row in 1989.
Cooper walked out of prison today with $75 and wearing donated street clothes, said Doug Garrison, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Corrections. He said she was driven to an undisclosed location to begin the next chapter of her life, where she will be required to check in with a parole officer.
“The plan for her is to have her meet regularly with her parole officer to help her find a job and permanent housing,” Garrison told ABCNews.com.
He declined to say where Cooper would be living.
Cooper’s sister, Rhonda Labroi, asked for privacy as her sister begins the next phase of her life.
“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,” Labroi wrote in an email to ABCNews.com.
“We are proud of how much she’s grown and she has all of our support as she starts this second chance at life,” Labroi said. “As always, our sincerest thoughts and prayers go out to the Pelke family.”