Photo: The Indianapolis Star
INDIANAPOLIS -- Paula Cooper was 16 when she was sentenced to death for killing an elderly Bible study teacher.
That made the Gary, Ind., teen the youngest person ever in the state to face the death penalty. At the time in 1986, she also was the youngest Death Row inmate in the United States.
To many, Cooper was a monster beyond rehabilitation. But others saw her as a victim of an abusive childhood and racist criminal justice system.
A legal challenge and international campaign to overturn her death sentence, which included an appeal from Pope John Paul II, saved Cooper's life.
Photos Then and Now: Youngest Person On Death Row
The Indiana Supreme Court commuted the death sentence in 1989 and sent her to prison for 60 years. For the past 24 years, she has lived in relative obscurity.
On Monday, Cooper will try to put all of that behind her when she walks out of the Rockville Correctional Facility.
It will be the 43-year-old's first taste of freedom since her arrest in 1985.
Cooper was 15 when she was charged with murder in the grisly stabbing of 78-year-old Ruth Pelke during a robbery. Three other co-defendants - also teenage girls at the time - went to prison but have been released.
Where Cooper will go and what she plans to do remain unclear. She did not respond to an interview request from The Indianapolis Star.
What is known is that she will leave prison with at least $75, a new outfit provided by the state and a bachelor's degree, according to DOC spokesman Douglas Garrison.
Cooper also is walking away with other baggage: a hard-to-shake notoriety as a heartless killer.
Time has changed the way some view Cooper, including a grandson of her victim and the prosecutor who tried to send her to Indiana's electric chair.
But for many others, her name continues to elicit memories of the brutal murder.
"People still know about this case," said Indianapolis attorney Jack Crawford, who was the prosecutor when Cooper was charged and convicted. "The name Paula Cooper still resonates, and she's going to attract some attention when she is released."
That's Bill Pelke's fear. A grandson of the murder victim, Pelke has forgiven and befriended Cooper. He declined to talk about her release.
"My main concern," he said, "is seeing her get settled and find a job."
Pelke said media coverage could make the already hard task of building a new life even more difficult.
Cooper's sister, Rhonda Labroi, said she hopes people look past the frozen-in-time image of her younger sister as a teenage killer.
"She's a very different person," Labroi said. "She is a lot more educated and older and wiser now. I think things will be different."
Cooper, she added, "has paid her price."
"There are second chances," Labroi said. "It seems like God has given her another chance. I think if people give her a second chance, she'll do fine."
In a 2004 interview with The Star, Cooper expressed remorse for her actions and a desire to turn around her life.
"Everybody has a responsibility to do right or wrong, and if you do wrong, you should be punished," she said. "Rehabilitation comes from you. If you're not ready to be rehabilitated, you won't be."
Murder was planned
Crawford said he has come to oppose the death penalty but thought it was appropriate at the time of Pelke's murder. Indiana law then allowed prosecutors to seek the death penalty for those as young as 10 - and he did.
"When we asked for it, it was controversial because she was so young," Crawford said. "But my feeling was that if the law allowed for imposition of the death sentence on a teenager, this was the case because of the facts. I couldn't imagine a worse set of facts for a defendant. But if it was ever justified, this was the time it was probably justified."
The case and reaction to the death sentence, Crawford said, attracted more scrutiny and notoriety than any other in his 12 years as a prosecutor in Lake County.
"It got a lot of attention for a lot of different reasons: She's a female, she's 15 years old, the ferocity of the killing, the white-black thing," said Crawford.
"It was four teenage girls on their lunch break from high school going over and committing a horrific crime. It was just incredible. It was so amazing that these girls could have killed so dispassionately and viciously."