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Thursday, May 28, 2020

03-24 TribStar

Death penalty opponent speaks at The Woods
Pelke turns murder into crusade against death penalty

By John D. Wright

ST. MARY-OF-THE-WOODS — When Paula Cooper slashed Bill Pelke’s grandmother 33 times with a knife as the victim lay on the floor, Cooper struck so maniacally that she shredded the carpet and marked up the wooden floor underneath.
A year and a half later, with Cooper on death row, Pelke had a flash of insight one day in 1986 and decided to replace his hatred for the killer with feelings of a different sort.
“I had begun to visualize my grandmother’s photograph, a beautiful photo that the newspapers always ran, with one difference. There were tears streaming down my grandmother’s face, and they were tears of love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family,” Pelke said Tuesday. “Those tears had an impact on me. I knew that I would feel guilty whenever I thought about ‘Nana’ if  didn’t do something about this.”
What he did was begin a serious campaign to end the death penalty, a journey that has carried him to 40 states and 10 nations for the cause. He spoke twice in the Terre Haute area on Tuesday — first at St. Mary-of-the-Woods and later in Unitarian Universalist Church. He was joined by death-penalty abolitionist Chris Hitz-Bradley.
Cooper, then 15, with the help of three other girls killed 78-year-old Bible school teacher Ruth Pelke in May 1985 in Gary. Cooper’s three accomplices were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Cooper’s death sentence was commuted to 60 years in prison in 1989, largely through the efforts of Pelke and others.
Much of Pelke’s speech centered on the effects of forgiving Cooper and the role it has played in his finding peace.
“I used to picture my grandmother as butchered on the dining-room floor, but with the healing power of forgiveness, I no longer picture how she died, but how she lived, and the beautiful person she was.”
Pelke believes the death penalty is cruel and barbaric and strictly an act of revenge.

Before his speech in O’Shaughnessy Hall at St. Mary’s, Pelke was asked about Chad Cottrell, a Rockville man who pleaded guilty earlier this month to killing his wife and two stepdaughters and who has asked for the death penalty. Does Cottrell’s admission of guilt and request to die make him less sympathetic a figure to the anti-death penalty cause?
“He’s asking the state to help with assisting in suicide,” Pelke said. “… My basic belief is that it’s wrong to unnecessarily take a life and once that person is taken off the streets, society’s safe from that person. We don’t have to kill them.”
If Cottrell believes that a life behind bars is a worse punishment than death, Pelke was asked if the “compassionate” thing to do is grant him his wish and execute him.
“People can live productive lives in prison that have a life sentence, and in many cases, life without parole,” he said.

Pelke also pointed out that Cottrell’s mental state in making such a request for death should be questioned, and Cottrell’s family’s wishes should be considered.
Hitz-Bradley said Cottrell could change his mind later about wanting to die, and the state should not be in the business of allowing these requests, anyway.
“We don’t let other prisoners decide their sentence in other instances. Why should we let them in this instance?” Hitz-Bradley said.
Pelke visited Cooper in prison many times in the 1990s, but has kept in little contact since he moved to Alaska in 1999. She will be eligible for parole in March 2014.
“I think she has rehabilitated, and won’t cause any problems once she leaves the system,” he said.
As Pelke neared the end of his presentation, he turned upbeat. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson recently repealed his state’s death penalty and other states are mounting similar efforts, he said.
“The trend in this country is a move away from the death penalty,” he said.
Rachel Andrepont, a Providence volunteer minister for the Sisters of Providence, listened to Pelke’s speech and left with an appreciation for his courage. She is open to all points of view about capital punishment, she said, but does profess to believe in the healing power of forgiveness.
“…It’s wonderful to see the actual fruits of that forgiveness,” Andrepont said.