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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

03-30 Post Tribune

Death penalty foe tells story of forgiveness


VALPARAISO -- A man who forgave the girl who was sentenced to death for the murder of his grandmother told a church audience Saturday night that capital punishment has nothing to do with justice or closure for families of victims.
Former Portage steelworker Bill Pelke, now living in Anchorage, Alaska, spoke on "From Violence to Healing."
He added St. Teresa of Avila in Valparaiso to a two-week tour that began March 10 in Dayton, Ohio, for Journey of Hope, the organization of families of murder victims and former death-row inmates who were exonerated before they could be executed.
A spokesman for the Diocese of Gary said the parish "jumped at the chance" to hear Pelke while he was visiting family and friends after the tour.
"We had a similar program two years ago," said the Rev. Kevin McCarthy of St. Teresa. "The timing was short, but we are a very socially conscious church community. We want to support life."
Following a supper after Mass, Pelke told 70 listeners the details of the 1985 murder of his grandmother Ruth Pelke during a robbery by four teenage girls, including 15-year-old Paula Cooper, who be-came the youngest person ever sentenced to death in Indiana.
"That was OK with me," Pelke said.
But three and a half months after she was sentenced to be executed, as the case was gaining international attention, he experienced a "transformation" one night while sitting in his crane cab at Bethlehem Steel.
"I became convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that my grandmother would have had love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family. I realized I didn't have to see somebody else die," he said.
Cooper was resentenced in 1989 to 60 years in prison by unanimous order of the Indiana Supreme Court.
Pelke said his opposition to capital punishment broadened after meeting Sister Helen Prejean, author of "Dead Man Walking," which became the 1995 movie that won Susan Sarandon the Oscar for portraying the activist nun.
Cooper is scheduled for release before completing the standard 30 years in prison on her new sentence, on March 14, 2014, according to Pelke.