Countdown to the electric chair

Fred Bruning October 26 1987

Countdown to the electric chair

Fred Bruning October 26 1987

Countdown to the electric chair


Fred Bruning

Paula Cooper committed murder, and the state of Indiana intends to make her pay at the prevailing rate—in other words, to one day strap her into a straight-backed chair and apply the juice. It may be some time before Cooper actually assumes the role of resistor in the correction system’s integrated circuitry—the appeal process still must run its coursebut barring a reversal of the conviction or reduction of the sentence, she will perish in the approved manner, and justice, American-style, will have been done. Only sentimental chumps will wince and recall that Paula Cooper was condemned to death at the age of 16. The execution chamber is no place for the emotionally overwrought.

Every capital case is preceded by a startling crime, and Paula Cooper’s transgression is nothing less. On May 14, 1985, she and three girlfriends found themselves short on cash for video games and reckoned they could hit pay dirt at the home of Ruth Pelke, a 78-year-old Bible-studies teacher. Cooper sweet-talked Pelke by professing a hunger for the Holy Word, and soon enough the teacher asked the four kids into her parlor.

Too late, the unsuspecting Bible instructor discovered her callers had not come looking for a fresh interpretation of Leviticus or the 23rd Psalm. Indeed, one can only imagine how, helpless and horrified, Ruth Pelke sensed she had made a fateful error, how, within moments, it became clear she would not survive the visit of the four teenagers, how, at last, the elderly instructor realized she was in the grip of a wrathful God she neither could recognize nor escape.

Paula Cooper stabbed Ruth Pelke to death that day—stabbed her, to be exact, 33 times—and when the frenzy subsided, Cooper and her companions scrammed with $30 for their electronic adventures. When the Pac-Man urge strikes, nothing much will deter players as ardent as these.

Sordid? Repulsive? Outrageous? To say the least. Although crimes against the elderly are becoming a standard feature of late-century life in the United States, this bit of mayhem possessed a transcendent sort of ugliness. What, we may wonder, would prompt a 15-year-old to strike with such fury against a woman five times her age? Where does the murderous instinct

take its nourishment? How do we explain a child so precocious in her capacity for evil?

Or do we bother explaining at all? Do we forthwith administer a lethal jolt to a person like Paula Cooper and let the matter go at that? Do we lay aside the issue of age, the prospect for redemption, the opportunity for mercy? The approach has an appealing simplicity, all right. Paula Cooper murdered and now must die herself. One life for another, even up. What could make more sense?

Oddly, while Paula Cooper does not seem to have much engaged the American imagination, her dilemma somehow has become a cause célèbre in Italy. An Italian reporter conducted a telephone interview with Cooper and predicted: “Every single newspaper is going to have a major news story on this.” Pope John Paul II has asked Indiana Gov. Robert Orr to grant clemency—Orr,

Do we administer a lethal jolt to 18-year-old convicted killer Paula Cooper? What could make more sense?

who favors the death penalty, says that he must let the courts do their work— and has discussed the case with Catholic officials in Indianapolis. A Vatican spokesman said that in his entreaties, the Holy Father emphasized “the human and humanitarian aspects of the case”—a reference, no doubt, to Cooper’s youthfulness and her background as an abused child.

If the Italian connection seems a bit unlikely, what are we to make of William Pelke, the 41-year-old grandson of Ruth Pelke? A born-again Christian, Pelke says that he had a vision in which his grandmother tearfully begged that Paula Cooper be spared the electric chair. Much to the distress of other family members, Pelke opposes Cooper’s execution and maintains a steady correspondence with his grandmother’s killer. In more than 100 letters, Pelke says, Cooper and he have discussed God, life and, quite naturally, the awesome prospect of death.

Despite Pelke, despite the Italian press, despite the Pope himself, William Touchette, the attorney representing Paula Cooper, says that the

prospects for clemency are not good. Last year South Carolina executed a man who was a killer at 17, thereby shunting aside pleas for clemency from none less than Mother Teresa and United Nations secretary general Javier Pérez de Cuéllar. In the Hoosier state Gov. Orr thus far shows no signs of budging, and Paula Cooper, now 18, can only pass the hours on death row and hope for the best. Not surprisingly, Cooper says she wants very much to live. Writing to the Vatican, Cooper said, “I’ve never really had a chance and that’s all I want.”

Surely it is true that poor Ruth Pelke, kind and trusting soul, wanted to live no less than Cooper. And who can doubt that if she had been given the opportunity, Pelke would have besought her assailant to put down the dagger, to leave her in peace, to please, please, go away and never come back? When the subject is survival, everyone wants a fair shake.

That is why death penalty issues arouse such passionate response in the United States, where some 1,900 inmates await the executioner. But always, the question is the same: how does the killing of the criminal compensate for the murder of the victim? Putting aside all other arguments, it would seem, as was suggested in a recent antideath penalty publication, that capital punishment ironically serves to focus attention on the murderer instead of the victim and, owing to high legal costs, drains off considerable resources that might otherwise be used to assist grieving families.

But when the murderers are very young, debate can be reduced even further. Society recognizes in a variety of ways that children are apt to exercise faulty judgment, to be ill-tempered, intemperate and, too often, vicious as well. A civilized adult community seeks to teach and rehabilitate even while imposing punishment. Only the most unresourceful culture would deal with its renegade offspring by annihilating them.

And yet, one must not fail to acknowledge progress when it occurs. Earlier this year the state of Indiana adjusted its capital punishment law, so far as it applies to children. Under the new, more humane system, only criminals 16 and older can be put to death. Previously, the age of entitlement was 10.

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.