She kept fighting against the odds

June 4, 2015

Paula Cooper--the youngest person to receive the death penalty in Indiana and later a symbol of the effort to reform the juvenile justice system--tragically took her own life in late May.

After a childhood of suffering sexual abuse and violence, Cooper was only 15 at the time of the crime that sent her to death row--the murder of an elderly woman in Gary, Indiana. After her arrest, Cooper was raped by guards. She pled guilty to the murder and apologized for her actions in court, but the judge imposed the death penalty. After she became the face of a human rights campaign that reached around the world, the Indiana Supreme Court overturned Cooper's death sentence in 1989. But she was re-sentenced to 60 years in prison--basically a death sentence by another name.

After earning a high school diploma and college credit behind bars, Cooper became the symbol of a different effort--to show that juvenile offenders sentenced to life should be given another chance. She finally won that second chance in 2013--she had spent nearly two-thirds of her life behind bars when she was finally released. On May 26, Cooper was found dead in her new home of Indianapolis, the victim of suicide.

Mark Clements was 16 years old when he was tortured by Chicago police into a confession used to convict him for murders he didn't commit. He was sentenced to life in prison and spent 28 years behind bars before winning his freedom. While still in prison, he began communicating with Paula Cooper after her arrest. He stayed in touch after his exoneration, when he threw himself into the struggle against the criminal injustice system as a board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, among other initiatives. Here, Mark pays tribute to Paula and remembers what made her a source of inspiration.

IN 1986, Paula Cooper made international news when she became the state of Indiana's youngest death row inmate, pleading guilty to murder and robbery of a Sunday school teacher.

The previous summer, news broke that several teenagers had been arrested for the murder of 78-year-old Ruth Pelke. Cooper and her associates were caught in Pelke's car. There was a national outcry after it was reported that the victim recited the Lord's Prayer while she was stabbed. It was a heinous crime that made headlines for weeks afterward.

Having been sentenced as a juvenile to natural life myself and told that I would die behind prison walls, Paula's case caught my attention. I first communicated with her while she was an inmate at a juvenile detention center. Paula spoke honestly to me about recognizing the consequences of her actions after sitting inside prison walls for more then 10 years of her life. In her many letters to me, she described the behavior that landed her inside prison as "horrifying."

But there was more to the story. She described how she had been sexually mistreated in the past by a family member, and now by guards, and that she wanted to go home. The sexual assault by guards was confirmed at a hearing in a Lake County courtroom, but jail officials and the judge assigned to her case decided she had staged the opportunities to be raped in order to have the charges against her dismissed or reduced.

Paula Cooper
Paula Cooper

Paula told me that she would be sentenced to a juvenile prison until her 21st birthday. But her plea agreement went haywire when the judge refused to accept the terms. She was instead sentenced to the death penalty, becoming the youngest death row inmate in the state of Indiana. Prison officials had to create a separate area for her to be housed.

Bill Pelke, the grandson of the victim, Ruth, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to announce his forgiveness for Paula and to voice how the system had failed a young child, leading her to the situation where she could commit murder.

He communicated with Paula leading up to her release in 2013, as she described her uncertainty, having spent more of her life in prison then in society. Cooper wasn't alone--many youth offenders who have been put inside a prison for decades after being tried as adults express the same concerns. Like myself, they simply never faced the basic issues that young adults must go through because they were in prison.

PAULA APPEARED to experience adjustment issues while at the Indiana Women's Prison. But after being transferred back to the Rockville Correctional Center outside Shelbyville, Indiana, Paula took a more serious attitude toward continuing her education. I can remember her excitement as she achieved her GED and then her college education. She was very determined to achieve--she wanted to show society that she had changed.

In one of the last correspondences with Paula in 2011, after I came back from Georgia following the protests of the execution of Troy Davis, I talked about how the criminal justice system was unwilling to accept its own flaws and that men and women who were once inside prison were forced to work extra hard to achieve any level of success.

Whenever I was asked by the media about who they should speak to about juvenile sentencing and incarceration, I always mentioned Paula Cooper. I learned so much through my letters and conversations with Paula.

I compared her experiences to those described in a report released in 2008 by the Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children. The report, titled "Categorically Less Culpable: Children Sentenced to Life Without Parole in Illinois," described scientific research proving that juvenile's brains are not yet fully developed, so their impulse control is lower and they are more vulnerable to peer pressure.

During my last telephone call with her shortly before she was released in 2013, she was excited, and I was hoping that once she completed her parole, she would be hired to help at-risk youth, using her past and her present situation as learning tools for today's youth. Her story is so powerful: put on death row at age 16 for a crime she committed when she was 15; viewed as a "menace to society"; raped while in custody; sentenced to die despite her apology in open court; told by a judge that she deserved to be executed.

When Cooper's sentence was overturned by the Indiana Supreme Court, it afforded her the opportunity to change and take advantage of rehabilitative opportunities in prison. I saw a great potential in this woman who most people considered a ruthless criminal.

I saw what the Supreme Court justices meant in the Miller v. Alabama decision declaring life sentences for juvenile offenders unconstitutional, when they wrote "sentencing courts' discretion must be exercised in an informed and thoughtful way that acknowledges that children are biologically different than adults and less responsible for their wrongdoing, and that the courts should provide the individuals affected by the ruling a meaningful opportunity to show they have rehabilitated themselves and are appropriate candidates for release."

PAULA IS someone who fought the odds and beat them. Her death has to be considered even more of a tragedy when you consider she didn't have any incentive to fight the odds. After her death sentence was overturned in 1989, she was resentenced to 60 years in prison, but she pursued her education anyway, achieving the highest level available within the walls of a prison. This has to be viewed as pretty remarkable.

Paula's story raises new questions about the release of juveniles who were sentenced to life or to long prison terms. Once they are released, shouldn't their re-entry program be obligated by law to provide special attention to someone who was still a juvenile when they entered prison. The hurdles that some of these people face are overwhelming. Incarceration comes with psychological scars that may not be easy to treat.

Still, Paula was able to do what most in her situation have not. She achieved her freedom after being convicted of a heinous crime and told she would die in prison. She did a complete turnaround of her life, which makes it even more difficult to accept her death by her own hand--a woman who overcame so many difficulties whose life ended with a self-inflicted gunshot. There is little doubt that perhaps an entire generation will miss out on a true reformer.

We live in a society where the impact of incarceration is enormous, with over 2.3 million men and women locked behind prison walls, but most people didn't have a way of understanding the traumatization this has produced. Paula Cooper was someone who people did learn about when her case caught the attention of the Pope, when the United Nations and the Indiana Supreme Court both received huge numbers of signatures calling for her release from death row.

Prisons create a lot of stress, strain and trauma. Hidden mental illness has to be one of the most important problems of formerly incarcerated people who have learned how to survive behind prison walls, and who are not helped in most cases about how to adjust to their return to society. Cries for education and mental health services for newly released prisoners have gone ignored for many years.

Paula Cooper is someone who was the symbol for a movement to end the death penalty and overly harsh sentences for juveniles. Now she is dead at age 45 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

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