Death row inmate at 16, later freed, she can't escape past

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Posted: Oct 03, 2015 7:15 PM
Death row inmate at 16, later freed, she can't escape past

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — She slipped out of the house before dawn, leaving behind four handwritten letters.

She'd bought a new outfit at a Wal-Mart the night before — gray pants, a black-and-white knit shirt, black sandals. She always wanted to look nice, especially this Tuesday morning.

She drove to a street where her fiance, a landscaper, had planted her favorite red begonias. There was a parking lot there, where the two of them liked to tool around on his father's old Harley that he was refurbishing. She left a tape recording on the front seat of her Toyota Corolla.

Paula Cooper had a plan. Doing what she wanted was still new to her. For most of her 45 years, prison officials had dictated when she could eat, sleep and shower. At 16, she'd become one of the nation's youngest inmates on death row for her role in the shockingly brutal stabbing of an elderly Bible teacher.

Spared from execution, Cooper served 27 years. On a June day in 2013, she was released, a smiling but scared middle-aged woman riding off in a van, watching the prison razor wire fade in the rearview mirror.

She was thrilled to be out, but she wrestled with an ugly past that shamed her and a present that, at times, overwhelmed her.

She learned to write a check, use a cell phone, manage a household. She found a good job, and was respected by her co-workers. She was championed by a wide circle of supporters, including the city's Roman Catholic archbishop and even, amazingly, her victim's grandson. She fell in love and was embraced by her fiance's family.

But she also knew some people would never forgive her. She understood. She couldn't forgive herself.

"I have taken a life and never felt worthy," she wrote her fiance.

Cooper sat down near a tree. Her letters written, her last words recorded, she pointed a .380-caliber Bryco handgun at her head and pulled the trigger.

___

If not for the bitter ending, this could have been a story about the most improbable redemption.

If not for the demons in her head — the guilt and torment — it could have been what Paula Cooper wanted: the story of a triumphant second chance, of a woman who'd proven she could do good and was nothing like the rage-filled teenager at the center of a horror three decades ago.

On May 14, 1985, Cooper, then 15, and three other girls cut school, drank and smoked marijuana. Armed with a 12-inch butcher knife, they knocked on Ruth Pelke's door in Gary, a fading Indiana steel city beset by crime.

Cooper and two friends entered, pretending to be interested in the Bible lessons she offered. While one girl stood lookout, according to court records, Cooper grabbed the 78-year-old woman from behind, pushed her to the floor, smashed a vase over her head, then repeatedly slashed her in the stomach and chest, arms and legs. She had 33 stab wounds.

The girls ransacked the house, taking $10 and stealing the widow's 1977 Plymouth. Cooper said robbery was the motive.

Prosecutor Jack Crawford sought the death penalty for Cooper. Authorities had identified her as the ringleader — a characterization she denied.

In 1986, Cooper pleaded guilty to murder. Before sentencing, her sister, Rhonda, testified about the girls' turbulent upbringing: She said her stepfather, now deceased, had disciplined them by pummeling them with his hands and whipping them with extension cords while they were naked. Cooper ran away repeatedly.

Her sister also recalled a day — she was about 12 and Paula, 9 — when their mother took both girls into the garage, turned on the car and announced they were going to heaven. They passed out and woke next to each other on a bed. (Cooper's mother declined to be interviewed.)

A defense psychologist who'd interviewed Cooper found "evidence of a major personality disorder" and a "strong tendency to be aggressive, hostile and vindictive." But he also noted her traumatic childhood.

Pleading for her life, Cooper asked the Pelke family for forgiveness and expressed hope she could one day start life over.

"I have remorse," she said. "What can I do? I can't explain what happened. ... I can't just sit here and say I'm sorry. ... Sorry isn't good enough for me. And sorry isn't good enough for you."

Judge James Kimbrough had the final word. A vocal opponent of capital punishment, he seemed Cooper's best hope. But he saw no choice. He asked Cooper to stand, then declared:

"The law requires me, and I do now, impose the death penalty."

___

As a 16-year-old inmate, Cooper knew nothing of the law and feared that any day she might be taken from her cell and strapped into the electric chair.

That is, until she met Monica Foster, a young appellate defender, who explained the legal process to her sobbing client.

She spent weekend afternoons with Cooper, but they didn't discuss the crime. "My role," she says, "was really just to keep her sane."

At 26, Foster was just 10 years older but when Cooper's "sassy mouth" repeatedly got her in trouble in prison, she assumed a maternal role, preaching discipline and sound judgment. "A lot of that," she says, "frankly fell on deaf ears."

Months after being sentenced, Cooper forged a more unlikely, life-changing friendship.

Bill Pelke, the victim's grandson, remembers when it began:

On Nov. 2, 1986, he was perched 50 feet high in a crane cab at the Bethlehem Steel plant, remembering his beloved Nana's final moments in the dining room where she'd hosted family gatherings. She'd died reciting the Lord's Prayer, according to one of the girls with Cooper.

Thinking about her unwavering faith, he became convinced she'd have compassion for Cooper and be appalled by the death sentence. Pelke asked God for that same compassion and when his prayer was answered, he says, his memories of his grandmother no longer were "about how she died, but how she lived."

Pelke wrote Cooper in prison, saying he intended to help her.

On Nov. 10, 1986, she replied. It was her first of hundreds of letters they'd exchange over decades.

"You don't have to write, speak, travel nor testify for me, just forgive me," she wrote. "I'm not an evil person or what ever you think of me to be. I'm just someone who is real angry, angry with life & all the people around me. ... I can face you no matter what you think of me ... because I am still human & God forgives me."

Pelke responded days later:

"Paula, I really believe Nana wants me to do this, and therefore, I will."

Pelke's parents weren't as forgiving. His mother insisted he read the autopsy report's gruesome details. His father had praised the death sentence. But he later said he expected Cooper would be spared by some do-gooder.

He wasn't expecting his son to lead the charge.

A "save Paula" campaign was just beginning in Italy, where there was fierce opposition to the death penalty. Pelke spoke in Rome after his forgiveness of Cooper became public. Pope John Paul II appealed for clemency. Eventually, some 2 million signatures were collected on one petition.

In 1989, the Indiana Supreme Court spared Cooper's life, citing a recent state law and a U.S. Supreme Court decision that barred executions of those under 16.

She was sentenced to 60 years. It was a glimmer of hope.

__

A reprieve didn't calm Cooper.

At the Indiana Women's Prison, she got in trouble for threats and rowdy conduct.

But she also earned a high school equivalency diploma, then took classes offered through Martin University in Indianapolis.

"She had a sweet disposition but she knew she was infamous and made use of that to put people off," recalls Warren Lewis, then her philosophy professor. As they got acquainted, Lewis once asked, "Paula, why did you do what you did?" She replied: "Dr. Lewis, no one has ever asked me that question before."

The discussion ended there.

Cooper rarely talked of the murder, even with her close friend, Ormeshia Linton, who met her in 1995 when she was imprisoned on a drug conviction. Linton recalls something Cooper did say: "There was no innocent person in the house that day." (The other girls were sentenced from 25 to 60 years.)

Bill Pelke didn't broach it, either. "What happened that day was a crazy, crazy senseless act," he says.

In 1994, Pelke finally won permission to visit Cooper in prison, the first of 14 meetings.

"I gave her a hug," he says. "I stepped back. I looked her in the eyes and I told her that I loved her and had forgiven her."

Driving home, Pelke marveled that he wasn't angry or seeking revenge. "To me," he says, "that was wonderful."

Still, Cooper's rage persisted. After assaulting a prison worker, she was placed in segregation, remaining in a 23-hour lockdown on and off for three years.

Cooper could be hotheaded and unyielding, but she was generous and kind, too, often welcoming new inmates with Ramen noodles and toiletries.

"She learned a lot of life lessons in prison," Linton says. "As more people put faith and trust in her, she started believing in herself."

In 2001, a beaming Cooper, dressed in cap and gown, received a bachelor's degree in humanities from Martin University in a prison ceremony attended by her sister and father.

The next year, though, after she'd transferred to the Rockville Correctional Facility, she faced more trouble: three months of segregation for fighting.

"When you're doing a lot of time, you kind of have this reputation you have to keep up," says Julie Stout, the prison's superintendent. "She didn't want to conform or follow the rules."

But around 2007, Stout noticed a big change. Cooper wanted to better herself. "Maybe it was she was getting older and realized, 'I need to get myself ready,'" she says.

Cooper participated in several programs; her favorite was culinary arts, where she excelled and became a tutor. "She truly loved that," Stout says. "She was always smiling."

As her sentence was ending — she got a day off for each one served and credit for her degrees — Cooper wrote Pelke in 2010. She'd "paid the price" for her "terrible" crime, she said, but still couldn't explain why she'd done it.

"Maybe," she wrote, "it was all the beatings but after almost 30 years ... no one has ever tried to help figure it out & if anyone thinks prison is the real answer people are mistaken."

___

On her last day in prison, Paula Cooper cried.

"I'm going to miss you guys," she said, according to Stout.

Walking out on June 17, 2013, she asked if she could ring a giant bell, as prison workers do when they retire. It clanged like a gong. Cooper smiled, then headed to a van.

She had prepared for life outside, twice taking an eight-week transition program that offered guidance on job searches, budgeting and other practical matters.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis helped Cooper with an apartment. She began volunteering in a church soup kitchen.

She reveled in everyday routines — even walking in the grass — but struggled with loneliness at first, sometimes crying alone in her apartment. She called her sister, Rhonda LaBroi, five, six times a day. "She was very afraid to be on her own," she says.

Freedom was intimidating. Unaccustomed to many choices, Cooper sometimes fled the grocery while shopping. Driving was hard, too. She got lost easily.

"She thought life was easier on the inside than on the outside." LaBroi says. "She said it was too complicated."

Cooper's sister constantly encouraged her.

"I'd say, 'There are some people will hate you ... but just go about your business,'" LaBroi says. "I told her she just had to live her life regardless of what people say and think. She'd served her time. She understood that, but I don't think it ever sunk in."

Her crime weighed on her.

"She thought about it constantly — every day of her life — and how she hated what she had done," LaBroi recalls. "She was just so ashamed."

During a year of parole, some members of an eight-person team, which included a mental health counselor, had daily contact with Cooper. After that, she continually updated Stout and two other prison mentors with calls about everything from her driver's license to her finances. "She would just talk a mile a minute about all the things she was doing," Stout says.

Cooper found work at a burger joint, but wanted more.

"She was always saying she needed to give back for what she had done," says Foster, her former lawyer, who reconnected with Cooper about a year after her release. They became close friends.

Foster, who heads the Indiana Federal Community Defender's Office, hired Cooper last fall as a legal assistant.

"She really became the soul of this office," Foster says, remembering Cooper as the happiest worker there. "She added a level of joy I think we'll never have again."

Cooper also understood the clients' fears and vulnerabilities. "She could talk to mothers about solitary," Foster says. "She had an empathy that was off the charts."

She was tenacious, too, never taking no for an answer when she needed to contact someone. And she was organized, always having everything in order, even office birthday parties.

"She went overboard to make sure we were pleased," says Kim Robinson, a lawyer on the defenders' board who was initially surprised by Cooper's hiring but was soon impressed by her professionalism.

At a spring open house, Archbishop Joseph Tobin noticed Cooper's confidence had grown since they'd met months earlier. "I thought she was doing fabulous," he says. "She seemed to be really upbeat."

One big reason: She was in love.

Cooper was leaving a KFC one day when LeShon Davidson stopped her, asking her out. After declining, she called him that night.

The next morning, on a whim, he texted her Psalm 27:10: "Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me." It resonated with him, he says, because he'd had a friend abandoned by his mother who'd triumphed against great odds. The psalm struck a chord, too, with Cooper.

They had dinner at a Cracker Barrel, and afterward, she revealed she'd been in prison for 27 years.

Davidson didn't ask why, but he later Googled her name. "Oh, my God," he thought. "What if I've made a mistake?"

Still, he didn't press. "I wanted Paula to talk about it when she felt comfortable," he says. She did, but never in detail.

The two became inseparable.

They visited Glasgow, Kentucky, where Davidson had inherited farmland. Davidson, who was divorced, introduced her to his six children and 10 grandchildren. "Miss Paula" became part of the family.

Davidson says Cooper never wanted to disappoint. "She wanted to make everybody happy," he says.

During a Thanksgiving visit to Cooper's mother, Davidson proposed, old-fashioned style, on one knee. He'd already bought Cooper a diamond engagement ring.

But there were rough patches, too, fights Davidson says often stemmed from Cooper's severe pre-menstrual cramps that left her short-tempered. They had a big one Memorial Day weekend.

It followed another emotional upheaval.

Cooper wanted to accompany her mother to church for Mother's Day, friends say, but her mother said she'd need to get her pastor's approval.

"It really, really hurt her feelings," Davidson says. "She said, 'I did my crime and I thought I paid my debt to society. ... Other people that don't really know me — they accept me, but my own mother she won't let the past just die.'"

___

Paula Cooper hoped to marry, possibly in the lush garden at Foster's home. She talked about visiting Washington, D.C. She'd recently bought stylish eyeglasses.

She seemed to be looking ahead — and yet on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, she was sobbing when she visited Ormeshia Linton at work.

"Friend, friend, I can't take it anymore," Linton recalls her saying. She'd never seen Cooper so broken.

"It's the pain inside, the pain inside," she said pointing to her heart, Linton recalls. "I just want it to be over."

To Linton, the message was clear.

"I don't think she ever felt she deserved a second chance," she says. "People would think Paula didn't have a conscience. Paula had a conscience. Paula had a heart."

Linton knew about Cooper's fight with her fiance. She insisted she stay a few days with her and her husband. They barbecued and Cooper's sister visited.

"She gave me the biggest hug," LaBroi recalls. "I felt something inside was wrong. I said, 'Is everything OK?' She said, 'Everything's fine. Everything's beautiful.'"

That night, Cooper insisted on shopping for a new outfit, planning for how she'd look the next day.

When Linton awoke on May 26, her husband was screaming, "Meshia, Meshia."

Cooper had left four letters. Three were in envelopes on the stove.

Linton's was left open. It was a thank you and a goodbye.

The police found Cooper next to a tree, on her right side, a gun in her lap.

Linton and Davidson pieced together her final hours.

Cooper had visited a former boyfriend. She'd left goodbye notes to him, her sister, Linton and Davidson. She also left her fiance a phone message: "Just wanted to hear your voice one more time."

The next day, Monica Foster sat in the police station listening to the tape Cooper left in her car.

Her farewells were crisp, almost businesslike.

To her sister: You were "my queen, my everything."

To her mother: "You didn't care about me. You cut me off. You judged me. You didn't want me at your church."

To Foster: "I'm so sorry."

To Linton, her friend: "You helped me when I was down. ... You (will) always be my sister."

And to Davidson, the man she called "daddy" and credited with showing her the world:

"I'm sorry for hurting you. Just know that I love you, baby. ... Forgive me."

Cooper's message also revealed deep despair:

"This pain that I feel every day ... I can't deal with this reality... I must have peace, peace of mind, peace in my heart."

She echoed that in her note to Davidson.

"My spirit died somewhere along the way," she wrote. "I just didn't feel I deserved you. I took a life and have never felt worthy. ... You were so beautiful inside and it was me that was poison. ... I know you don't understand but mental illness is bad."

Cooper told him to remember how they'd danced, holding one another, and asked that he send her love to his family.

"I said my prayer and asked God if it were OK and he said yes, he is mad, but understands," she added. "I can't stay with this misery inside I fight every day, this voice that tells me I'll never be happy."

___

Her death stunned many.

Jack Crawford, the former prosecutor who'd fought for her execution but now opposes capital punishment, says she deserved a second chance.

Stout, the prison superintendent, regrets Cooper didn't reach out.

"I don't know why she didn't just call us — just pick up the phone and call," she says.

Foster, her friend and boss, wonders if Cooper's cheeriness was a warning sign they'd all missed. She wanted a normal life, Foster says, but there was that guilt she couldn't escape. "She was trying to outrun the voices in her head, but I don't think that ultimately she could."

In life, Cooper, the prisoner, had few choices. In death, she made many, leaving detailed funeral instructions. "I want my services to be happy," she wrote.

Rather than flower arrangements, she wanted just the red begonias that Davidson introduced her to when they fell in love. She requested her favorite music — Chris Brown, Patti LaBelle — and fried chicken, greens, Hawaiian rolls and macaroni and cheese. She asked to wear a black outfit her sister had bought her. She wanted her hair rolled and no makeup.

And she asked to be cremated.

Instead, her mother chose to bury her. Foster said Cooper's mother indicated the family opposes cremation.

Cooper's sister, fiance, co-workers and friends held their own memorial with the food she requested, the music she loved, the people she wanted.

The archbishop offered a prayer asking the "angels of God to lead her to paradise."

Pelke, who'd come all the way from Alaska, read from Cooper's Christmas card message: "Always remember me in your prayers and I will do the same."

They watched a musical slide show of Cooper at her college graduation, at work, with her fiance, sister and nephew. This was the life they wanted to remember — not the ghastly beginning or end, but the redemption and joy in-between.

There were tears, even though Cooper forbade them in her tape.

"I don't want people crying and having a lot of regrets feeling they could have did more," she said. "There was nothing more anybody could do. It's time."

___

Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at scohen@ap.org.