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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

06-06 The Sunday Times

Death Penalty Protest Raises Emotions, Opposition

By Robin Biesen
Times photos by Karen M. Dunivan

Michigan City – Elizabeth Arnet traveled from Stockholm, Sweden, to show her opposition to the death penalty at a march Saturday. She joined more than 80 other death-penalty opponents outside the gates of the Michigan City Prison Saturday morning on the first leg of the two-week long “Journey of Hope – two weeks of action against the death penalty,” sponsored by Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation. The marchers, who began their journey against capital punishment outside the gates of the Michigan City Post Office, snaked their way peacefully through the impoverished neighborhoods in the eastern portion of the city en route to the jail that houses nearly all of the 52 death-row inmates in Indiana.
Some, like Arnet, came to the consciousness-raising tour because they are fundamentally opposed to the eye-for-an-eye system of justice that has decided the legal taking of a life is just punishment for murder. “Sweden does not have capital punishment but here are those, who would like to see it revived,” said Arnet, who is a member of Amnesty International and a group in ‘Sweden, both of which campaign against the death penalty.
For others, like Bill Pelke of Portage and Lois Williamson of Philadelphia, the march was more personal.
Pelke, whose grandmother, Ruth Pelke, was murdered by four Gary teens in her Glen Park home eight years ago, and Williamson, who lost her husband and nephew to murder, have a unique perspective in looking for the abolition of capital punishment.
Both have sought relief from death sentences for the killers.
The death-penalty sentence of Paula Cooper, who was convicted of stabbing Ruth Pelke 33 times, was commuted to a 60-year prison term after Bill Pelke campaigned for clemency.
“Killing people is not the solution to crime,” Pelke said.
But Pat Widener of LaPorte doesn’t agree.
Widener and a group of death penalty advocates joined in the Saturday march carrying signs and chanting in opposition to the Journey of Hope group.
“We are here to protest the protesters,” Widener said.
According to Widener, her cousin, Dawn Van Meter of Merrillville, was beaten to death in August 1982, and her body dumped into the Marquette Park Lagoon.
The man responsible for the crime, who was out on bail at the time of the murder, has never been prosecuted, Widener said.
“Where is the hope when murderers are out on the street,” she said. “My cousin’s murderer is walking free.”
Williamson said she sympathized with Widener’s pain but maintained her belief that killing is never the answer.
“I know how she (Widener) feels,” Williamson said. “She is grieving and she’s hurt. I’ve been there. I know where she’s coming from. But, if she hates murderers, she must hate the state because the state is the murderer.”
In a time when murder is becoming increasingly commonplace, Pelke knows the views of groups like his are out of sync with public sentiment about capital punishment.
He also knows views on capital punishment can be changed because he was once a death penalty advocate.
“My grandmother had been brutally murdered so when they sentenced Paula (Cooper) to death, I thought that was just fine,” Pelke said. “After Paula was on death row, I began thinking about what my grandmother would have thought about Paula being put to death.
“I thought she would have been appalled,” he added. “She was always trying to reach out to girls, like Paula. I became convinced that she would have had compassion. I had no compassion for her. I prayed and asked God to give me love and compassion for Paula, and it came.
“Paula will be eligible for parole when she is 45 years old,” he said. “I’m not convinced that is long enough for what she did gut I believe she should not die for her crime.