Paula Cooper, once the nation’s youngest person on death row, was found dead in Indianapolis Tuesday, the Associated Press reports.
Authorities said that the 45-year-old, who had been released from prison in 2013 after the Indiana Supreme Court set aside her death sentence, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
“It’s an unusual ending to a tragic case. I’ve been involved in a lot of cases in my life, and nothing compared to this case,” Jack Crawford, the Lake County prosecutor when Cooper was charged and convicted, told the Indianapolis Star.
Cooper gained notoriety at age 15. She was the ringleader in the 1985 robbery and murder of 78-year-old Ruth Pelke. She confessed to stabbing the Bible teacher 33 times with a 12-inch butcher knife. Cooper and three other girls involved in the robbery made off with just $10.
But it was the judge’s sentence that thrust Cooper onto the world stage. At age 16 she received a death sentence, which triggered an outcry at home and abroad that reached the Vatican. Pope John Paul II urged U.S. officials for clemency on Cooper’s behalf.
The Indiana Supreme Court commuted her death sentence and issued a 60-year sentence. Ultimately, Cooper served 27 years and was released in 2013.
While in prison, Cooper earned a GED, a vocational degree and finally a bachelor’s degree in 2001.
May 14 marked the 30th anniversary of the murder. The victim’s grandson, Bill Pelke, said he was devastated to learn of Cooper’s death.
“My grandmother would have been appalled she was on death row and that there was so much hate and anger and desire for her to die,” he told AP. “I was convinced my grandmother would have had love and compassion for Paula and her family.”
Pelke operates Journey of Hope, an organization that supports alternatives to the death penalty. He told the Star that he forgave Cooper, whom he visited 14 times in prison. They had planned to work together around the issue of restorative justice and opposition to the death penalty.
He said that Cooper, who was a victim of child abuse, wanted to share her journey with young people.
“She wanted to tell them, ‘Look, this is how I responded to the hate and anger, and look at all the trouble I got into,’” he told the Star. “She wanted to give them alternatives so they didn’t end up like her.”
Warren W. Lewis, a retired dean and professor at Martin University who taught Cooper at the Indiana Women’s Prison, speculated that Cooper “couldn’t deal with the outside world.”
He added: “I knew her well, and I loved her. She was practically a child, and she shouldn’t have been treated like an adult.”