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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

05-31 Fort Wayne Journal

Real Crime Fighter
Can Bill Pelke Teach Us to Love?

What will it take to change the attitudes of Americans toward the death penalty and get the country to join the rest of the civilized world in abolishing it?

Citizens here are joining with a national group, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, on a 17-city tour in the Midwest. It’s called “Journey of Hope.” The tour comes to Fort Wayne on June 11. It’s a simple idea – to get people to see the cruelty and futility of the death penalty and to win support for its abolition.

But all the great arguments about how the death penalty doesn’t deter murder, how it cheapens all life, how it demeans the state, how it stoops to the level of the murderer – they haven’t been persuasive for people who are increasingly fearful of being victims themselves.

Maybe what it takes is somebody with the quiet and humble sincerity of Bill Pelke. He was in Fort Wayne last Tuesday with other Journey of Hope organizers. His name should be familiar to Hoosiers. Pelke’s grandmother, Ruth, was the elderly Bible teacher in Gary who was set upon and killed by 15-year-old Paula Cooper and her young friends.

The case was a frightening as it was unbelievable, for the tender ages of the girls and for the sheer cruelty they displayed. The case was so shocking that the prosecutor won a death sentence for Cooper.

But Bill Pelke turned the anger he felt about his grandmother’s death into a crusade against the death penalty. After a great deal of soul searching, he came to realize that a woman of a deep forgiving nature like Ruth Pelke would herself oppose the execution of this young girl.

Bill Pelke’s crusade brought international attention to his grandmother’s case. He helped get Cooper’s sentence commuted to a 60-year term. He was one of those who shamed the Indiana General Assembly into raising the age at which the state can impose the death penalty. He has corresponded with Cooper, who is now taking college courses in prison.

You might think that Pelke’s mission of forgiveness and personal healing doesn’t have much to do with preventing violent crimes. To the contrary. What Pelke and others who’ve joined Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation ultimately are promoting is a non-violent society -- one that does not breed crime. And you can start, Bill Pelke would tell you, by not letting one tragic death be the pretext for another.