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Tuesday, June 02, 2020

03-23 TribStar

Anti-death penalty advocate bringing message of ‘Hope’ to Valley

By Brian M. Boyce
The Tribune-Star

— All the electricity in the execution chair won’t bring Bill Pelke’s grandmother back to life. And that’s just one of his points.
“I’ve dedicated my life to the abolition of the death penalty,” the 61-year-old retired steelworker said Sunday as he prepared for two presentations in Terre Haute on Tuesday.
On May 14, 1985, Ruth Pelke, a Bible teacher in Gary, was murdered by four teenage girls inside her own home. According to Pelke, the four high school freshmen attended nearby Lew Wallace High School, where his own father had gone, and had decided to skip school that day.
The girls had been drinking and smoking marijuana when they decided to play video games at an arcade and needed money. One of the girls lived near a woman who was known to teach Bible lessons in her home, so the group went there and knocked on the door under the pretense of wanting a lesson.
Once inside, one girl hit Pelke over the head with a vase while the others stabbed her 33 times until she died.
Paula Cooper, then 15, was determined to have been the ringleader of the attack and was sentenced to death on July 11, 1986.
Pelke was in his 20th year at Bethlehem Steel, and at the time, fully in favor of executing his grandmother’s murderer.
But as he reflected on her life and the faith she had taught him, his views began to change. And when Pelke saw Cooper’s own grandfather forced from the courtroom for his emotional outburst at the death sentence handed “his baby,” he decided his grandmother “would have had compassion on her and her grandfather.”
What started as a simple prayer for the power to forgive began a transformation which Pelke described as life-changing, as he switched sides and crusaded for Cooper’s removal from death row.
More than 2 million signatures and Pope John Paul II’s request later, Cooper’s death sentence was commuted to 60 years in 1989.
Pelke retired from Bethlehem Steel 12 years after his grandmother’s death and has recently authored the book “Journey of Hope … From Violence to Healing” in conjunction with 20 years of anti-death penalty advocacy, crossing 40 states and 10 nations to tell his story and make his case with his own Journey of Hope Organization and the Indiana Information Center on Abolition of Capital Punishment.
As Pelke explained, it wasn’t until he remembered his grandmother’s compassion that he could forget the way she died to celebrate the way she lived.
“I agree that society has a right to protect itself from violent people,” he said Sunday afternoon, noting that Indiana, like many states, offers a sentence of life without parole.
And broken down in dollars, the prison term often makes more sense.
“It’s cheaper to keep a person in prison for life,” he said, noting the cost of mounting a death penalty case can often be three or four times more expensive. But, “even if the costs were the same, I’d rather feed them than kill them,” he said.
Along with the families of victims, Pelke’s organization actively works to free individuals wrongly convicted of crimes.
Since their work began, more than 130 people have been exonerated from death row.
“The death penalty system is so fraught with errors. We do know eye witnesses make mistakes, and so much is based on snitch testimony,” he said, referring to inmates testifying against one another in exchange for leniency.
Another speaker that often travels with Pelke is Darryl Burton of St. Louis, who spent 24 years in prison for a crime of which he was later found innocent.
And while some argue that executions would be cheaper if the appeals process were modified, Pelke, currently a resident of Alaska, said of the men and women he’s met, “I wonder how many of my friends would be dead if it hadn’t been for the appeals process.”
Pelke’s tour is sponsored by the Indiana Information Center on Abolition of Capital Punishment in Indianapolis and a dozen or more churches and colleges in Indiana.