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Monday, September 24, 2018

02-16 Auburn Plainsman

International advocate for death penalty abolition coming to Auburn
by Jenny Steele

Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is hosting a seminar which advocates the abolition of the death penalty Wednesday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
The event will feature Journey of Hope, a nonprofit organization led by families of murder victims.
“It was an idea that I came up with when I was doing a march against the death penalty in Texas in 1991,” said Bill Pelke, founder of the organization.
The organization’s first event was in 1993, and the nonprofit was incorporated in '98.
“It was under the auspices of an organization I was involved with at that time called Murder Victim Families for Reconciliation,” Pelke said. “We hosted nearly 100 events in Indiana around that time. It was going to be a one-time event, but it turned out to be very successful.”
Pelke’s grandmother was killed by a group of teenage girls in Indiana in 1985. The group's leader, Paula Cooper, who was 15 at the time, was sentenced to death. After some time, Pelke began a petition that gained attention worldwide.
“Over two million people signed a petition in Italy asking that she be taken off of death row,” Pelke said. “The pope asked the governor for mercy.”
At the time in Indiana, Pelke said, a 10-year-old could be tried as an adult and therefore be eligible for the death penalty. The international attention caused legislators to change the age to 16, but Cooper was prosecuted under the old law.
“When it went onto the automatic appeal before the Supreme Court, they overturned her sentence and it was changed to a 60-year sentence,” Pelke said.
Pelke and members of his organization have since traveled to more than 40 different states and hosted events in 14 countries.
“Through a terribly dark cloud, God was able to find a silver lining,” Pelke said.
The upcoming event is sponsored by Justice and Mercy, an organization run by First Church Birmingham.
“Justice and Mercy is responsible for bringing Bill Pelke to Alabama for a mini Journey of Hope during the month of January, leading up to the opening of the Alabama legislature,” said Judy Collins, one of the event coordinators.
The first event of the month was co-hosted by Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty and the student group Arise, an organization whose goal is to “educate and advocate for policy change to improve the lives of low income citizens on a state level in a university community,” according to its Facebook page.
The Jan. 12 presentation addressed violence and the use of the death penalty in Alabama, Collins said.
“Participants were invited to share their concerns initially, after which they heard presentations by a mother whose son had been killed, a former police chief and a former inmate on Alabama’s death row who was exonerated,” Collins said.
Miranda Heard, senior in social work, attended the presentation.
“I was surprised at the way the speakers challenged my way of thinking on the death penalty,” Heard said. “The Journey of Hope tour has inspired me to take a personal interest in raising awareness of the hatred behind the death penalty.”
Since attending the event, Heard said she has used every opportunity to educate people about the death penalty.
“I would challenge anyone available to attend Bill Pelke’s speaking engagement to do so,” she said.