How I forgave Paula Cooper

From Bill Pelke

On the drive home, the three hour drive home, the word wonderful, wonderful, wonderful kept crossing my mind. Because I had just met this person that had done such a terrible thing to my grandmother, such a terrible thing to our family, and yet I didn't have the anger, the hate, or the desire for revenge that would have been so easy to have had. But I had the kind of love I know God wants us to have for each of his children. And to me that was wonderful!

Video Interview Transcript

My name is Bill Pelke. I live in Anchorage Alaska. I am the president and co-founder of an organization called "The Journey of Hope from Violence to Healing", which is led by murder victim family members that are opposed to the death penalty. We travel around the United States and around the world, sharing our stories of "from violence to healing" and talking about how the death penalty has nothing to do with the healing that murder victim family members need when a loved one has been killed, but how it just continues that cycle of violence, and it creates more murder victim family members. We promote forgiveness as a way of healing, not revenge. We promote restorative justice, as a way of life within the criminal justice system. As we do our speaking tours, We are joined by family members that had loved ones that have been executed, also people that have loved ones that are still on death row, as well as people that were sentenced to death but were innocent of the crime. Over 150 people in the United States have been sentenced to death since 1972 that fortunately, they were able prove their innocence before the state could take their life. But when it comes to the death penalty there's no room for mistakes. When it comes to the death penalty: as long as human beings decide who is going to live or die, we are going to make mistakes !
May 14th, 1985 There were four young girls, ninth grade students at a local high school in Gary, Indiana, who left the school grounds at the lunch hour. It was common practice in those days for students to leave the school grounds, but they would go back to school after they had lunch. But these girls knew that day they were not going to go back to school. They were going to skip, play hooky for the rest of the day. They went to one of the girls’ homes that live near the school. There were just the four girls, they sat around the dining room table. They drank some beer and some wine and talked about what they were going to do for the rest of the day. They decided they would like to play video arcade games at the local arcade just a block away but they had a problem. They didn't have any money. So they began to talk among themselves about how could they get some money. Finally, one of the girls, whose house they were at said: “Well, there's an old lady who lives in back of me. She teaches Bible lessons in the neighborhood. She lives alone. I think she has money. She doesn't have a dog or anything like that". She said: " if you three girls will knock on her door and tell her you would like to take her Bible lessons I think she will let you into the house. If she lets you in the house you can rob her". She said: “I'll stay back as a look out.” And so, the girls agreed on that plan, and a short time later three of the girls knocked on my grandmother's front door. My grandmother answered the door and they said: “Mrs. Pelke, we'd like to take your Bible lessons” and my grandmother told the girls to come on into the house. To know my grandmother, we called her "Nana", but to know Nana, this is what Nana would do. Nana loved to tell young people Bible stories. And so, at the age of 78 years old it was one more chance to share her faith with young people. She told the girls to come on into the house. The girls came into the house and Nana turned her back to go to her desk to get some information on the Bible classes. One of the girls grabbed a vase off of the end table and hit her over the head. As Nana fell to the floor, another girl pulled a knife out of her purse and began to stab Nana. While she was stabbing Nana the other two girls went through the house looking for money. They came back a short time later where the girl was still stabbing Nana and said: "we can't find any money!" So this girl got angry, she told another girl to take the knife, and she went through the house, and into the bedrooms, ransacking the house, pulling out all the dresser drawers looking for money. The girls came up with a total of ten dollars and the keys to Nana's old car. They took her car and went back to the high school they skipped out on earlier in the day, to see if any of their friends wanted to go joyriding.
Nana died on the dining room floor of her home. My father found Nana's body the next day. You can imagine what a terrible thing it was for my father and for our entire family that somebody we love so much could have died in such a horrible manner. The girls were arrested the next day and the State of Indiana immediately said that they were going to seek the death penalty for all four girls. In Indiana, if you were ten years old or older and charged with certain kind of crimes, you could be charged as an adult. Since they could be charged as adults, the death penalty was on the table. The trials took place over the next year and a half. And one of the girls, a 15 years old girl at the time of the crime, her name was Paula Cooper, was sentenced to die in the electric chair by the State of Indiana. I was there in the courtroom the day she was sentenced to death. It was okay with me that the judge gave that sentence. I knew different people who were being sentenced to death for crimes of murder and some were actually being executed. I thought, well if they're going to kill people for killing people, then they should kill the person that killed my grandmother. I remember as I walked out of the courtroom that day, I was asked what my opinion was by a reporter. I said “I felt like the judge did what he had to do”. But then fighting back tears, I said: “but it won't bring my grandmother back”. That was on July 11th 1986.
It was three and a half months later, November 2nd 1986, a day I’ll never forget. I was at work, where at that time I had been employed by Bethlehem Steel for about twenty years as an overhead crane operator. I was in my crane cab, and there was a period of time where I didn't have any work to do. I began to reflect on Nana's life and on Nana's death. My mind went back to the courtroom on the day that Paula had been sentenced to death. And I recalled that just as the judge had begun to deliver his sentence, this old man just began to cry and to wail: "They're going to kill my baby!” “They're going to kill my baby!" And the judge looked over the bailiff and told the bailiff to escort that man out of the courtroom because he was disrupting the proceedings. I watched as the old man was led out the courtroom, tears coming out of his eyes streaming down his cheeks. It was Paula Cooper's grandfather and I also recalled as Paula Cooper was led off to death row. Tears coming out of her eyes, streaming down her cheeks onto her light blue prison dress. There were dark blotches all over her dress. I began to think about my grandmother. There has been a very beautiful picture taken of my grandmother shortly before her death. This is the picture that was in the paper. Whenever the papers would do a story about her death or about the trials. I began to envision this picture in my mind, but with one distinct difference, I envisioned tears coming out of Nana's eyes and streaming down Nana’s cheeks, and I knew that they were tears of love of compassion, for Paula Cooper and her family. I knew that Nana would not want this grandfather to have to go through to see his granddaughter, that he loved very much, strapped into the electric chair and volts of electricity put to her until she was dead. The girl, Paula Cooper, that had killed my grandmother, Nana had invited her into the house, because she wanted to share with her, her love for God. I felt that Nana would have been more interested in somebody from our family or somebody from our church or community try to continue to share that witness for God, rather than being so interested in seeing her put to death. And I knew that Nana would not have been happy with all the hate and anger that was coming out of Northwest Indiana that was directed towards Paula Cooper. She couldn't die soon enough to make the people there happy. I knew she would have been appalled by that and would have had love and compassion. I began to think about Nana's faith, the Christian faith. I immediately thought of three things that Jesus had to say about forgiveness. The Sermon on the Mount where He said “if you want your Father in heaven to forgive you, you need to forgive others”. I also thought about when Jesus was teaching the disciples about forgiveness. Peter didn't quite understand everything that Jesus was saying. He questioned Jesus: “How many times do you forgive? Seven times?” Jesus responded by saying “Seventy times seven”. I knew that Jesus wasn't saying to forgive 490 times, then you didn't have to forgive any more, but Jesus was saying forgiveness should be a habit, it should be a way of life… to forgive, to forgive, to forgive and keep on forgiving. I also thought about when Jesus was crucified. I envisioned a crown of thorns in his brow and the nails in his hands and feet, and Jesus looking up to heaven saying “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing." I thought to myself, Paula Cooper didn't know what she was doing. Somebody that knows what they're doing doesn't take a twelve inch butcher knife and stab somebody 33 times. What happened that day at Nana’s house was a crazy, crazy senseless act. And I thought to myself: "wow my faith is calling me to forgive". I thought, well maybe someday I will, maybe. But once again, I begin to envision this picture that had become very very special to me, very dear to my heart. And seeing the tears coming out of Nana's eyes and streaming down her cheeks, I knew they were tears of love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family. I felt she wanted me to have that same sort of love and compassion but even though I knew forgivness was the right thing, I didn't have a bit of love and compassion, because Nana had been brutally and heinously murdered. But so convinced that's what Nana would've wanted, with tears coming out of my eyes and streaming down my cheeks, I begged God to please, please, please give me love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family and do that on behalf of Nana and I prayed it in Jesus name. It was just a short prayer. I began to think I could write this girl a letter. I could tell her about Nana. I could share Nana's faith with her. And I realized my prayer of love and compassion had been answered. Because I knew that I no longer want her to die and I wanted to do whatever I could do to try to help her. I learned the most important lesson of my life that night, It was about the healing power of forgiveness. Because when my heart was touched with that love and compassion, the forgiveness became automatic. I didn't have to forgive her. It happened. And when it happened it brought a tremendous healing. It had been a year and a half since Nana's death, and whenever I thought about Nana during that period of a year and a half, …it was so horrible I couldn't stand to think about it. But I knew immediately when my heart was touched with that love and compassion, and forgiveness took place, I knew that whenever I would think about Nana again I would no longer think about how she died, but I'd think about how she lived and what she stood for and the beautiful wonderful person that she was. I knew that something special had happened inside of me. It was something that changed my life. Before I left work that night I made my God two promises: I promised that any success that came into my life as a result of forgiving Paula Cooper, I would give God the honor and glory. Second promise I made was that any door that opened up as a result of forgiving her, I would go through that door. That was November 2nd 1986 and to this day I've kept those two promises. That's why I'm here today.
For most people forgiveness is a process, but that night in the crane when God touched my heart with love and compassion, the forgiveness took place and I realized that I had forgiven her, to me it was a very beautiful thing. When I walked down the crane stairs that night, (I had about 50 stairs I had to climb to get to the bottom ground floor). I knew that my life was going to be different. I didn't know how, but I knew my life was going to be different. I call the crane "my mountaintop experience" ! That night changed my life. Many people think forgiveness is a process. But for me it was instantaneous, almost like what I call miraculous.
Forgiving Paula Cooper was a very special event for me. I wrote her a letter, I explained to her that I had forgiven her. I did not know if she would write back or not. Fortunately about 10 days later I did get a letter from her. And we began as a series of correspondence. But even if she would have never written back the forgiveness still would have been in place. Because I knew that night in the crane that something very special happened to me and it was a life changing event. Paula told me in her letters that my forgiving her did a lot for her. She didn't really understand for a long time why I had done what I had done. But she began to learn about forgiveness. There were people in her family that had done her wrong and she came to where she was able to forgive them for what they had done to her. And she became a strong Christian lady involved with the services offered through prison ministries. And she even was baptized shortly before she was released from prison. But she had strong faith in God.
When Paula Cooper was sentenced to death it was headlines in papers not only in this country but throughout Europe where there is no death penalty. So there was quite a fascination about her case, about why the state of Indiana would take a 15 years old black girl and strap her into the electric chair when over twenty two thousand murders had taken place in the United States in 1985. Why were they going to take her as an example? Pope John Paul II got involved in her case asked the State of Indiana to have Mercy. In Italy they took on her case very strongly. There was a group formed, actually on November 2nd 1986, the very same day that I begged God to give me love and compassion. There was an organization in Italy started called "Don't kill". It was inspired by Paula’s case and gathering petitions to send to the State of Indiana to ask that Paula Cooper not be executed. Eventually over two million people signed these petitions. And it was largely responsible for Paula’s death sentence being overturned. The legislators in the state of Indiana realized they had to raise the age limit from 10. After a long debate they raised it to 16. But they still said that Paula was still supposed to be executed under the old law. But by a vote of five to zero by the Indiana Supreme Court, they said it would be exclusionary if she was the only one executed under the old law. So, she was taken off of death row.
When I begged God for love and compassion, God answered that prayer and I had love for Paula. I wanted to help her in any way that I could. And if you love someone you're not going to want to say: "But I think you should die. I think they should put electricity to your body until you’re dead." And so my first major goal was really to try to get her death sentence overturned. I didn't want her to die. You can't have love for somebody and want them to die. But while she was on death row I had the opportunity to go to Italy on three occasions and speak. One was a 19 day tour. The two priests who started the organization called "Don't Kill" took me all around within a 150 mile radius of Rome, speaking in high schools, colleges, and churches. In fact. I spoke on Vatican radio which was something as a little Baptist boy I didn't think I would ever be doing, but I was able to talk on the National and International segments, talking about love and compassion and forgiveness.
The first time I wrote Paula was in 1986, and she told me how to be able to go about visiting with her. I wrote a letter as she said I needed to do, but the Department of Corrections for the State of Indiana would not allow us to visit. Actually, for eight years they would not allow us to visit. By the time I was able visit her the first time she was already off of death row. The first visit came on Thanksgiving Day in 1994. I was able to drive three hours to go to the prison. I met with her for an hour. I never did ask her why she committed the crime. I knew that when you went in to the prison you were able to greet the person with a hug. I had seen on an interview that she had done, that she wanted to look in my eyes and know for sure that I had forgiven her. So I gave her a hug, I stood back. I told her I loved her and I had forgiven her. We never talked about the crime but we talked about some people and friends that we had made in common over the eight years. On the drive home, the three hour drive home, the word wonderful, wonderful, wonderful kept crossing my mind. Because I had just met this person that had done such a terrible thing to my grandmother, such a terrible thing to our family, and yet I didn't have the anger, the hate, or the desire for revenge that would have been so easy to have had. But I had the kind of love I know God wants us to have for each of his children. And to me that was wonderful!

Director's note

The story of Bill Pelke on how he was able to forgive Paula Copper.

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