Indiana Woman Sentenced to Death as Teen Leaving Prison a 'Reformed Woman'

ABC News

An Indiana woman who was sentenced to death by the electric chair at age 16 was released today after serving more than a quarter of a century in prison.

Now 43 years old, Paula Cooper left the Rockville Correctional Facility in Indiana today a free woman after serving 27 years in prison for her role in the murder of Ruth Pelke, a 78-year-old Bible school teacher.

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Paula Cooper

"Paula has worked hard to change her life in the decades since the crime," Cooper's sister, Rhonda Labroi, wrote in an email to ABCNews.com. "She entered prison as a very troubled teenager and is leaving a reformed woman."

Cooper walked out of prison with $75 and wearing donated street clothes, said Doug Garrison, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Corrections. He said she was driven to an undisclosed location to begin the next chapter of her life, where she will be required to check in with a parole officer.

"The plan for her is to have her meet regularly with her parole officer to help her find a job and permanent housing," Garrison told ABCNews.com.

He declined to say where Cooper would be living.

The teenager, who was 15 when she fatally stabbed Pelke during a robbery, was sentenced to death row in 1986, while her three friends received lighter prison sentences.

Because of Cooper's age, the sentence sparked outrage and got the attention of Pope John Paul II, who called for clemency for the teen.

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people under the age of 16 at the time they committed a crime could not be sentenced to death, the Indiana Supreme Court commuted Cooper's sentence to 60 years in prison and she was taken off death row in 1989.

Garrison said Cooper's release today included credit for good behavior in prison, where she earned a Bachelor's degree.

Cooper's sister, Labroi, asked for privacy as her sister begins the next phase of her life.

"We are proud of how much she's grown and she has all of our support as she starts this second chance at life," Labroi said. "As always, our sincerest thoughts and prayers go out to the Pelke family."

The victim's grandson, Bill Pelke, who now lives in Anchorage, Alaska, told The Associated Press he opposed the death penalty for Cooper and that his grandmother would have been "appalled" at a young girl being sent to death row. Pelke, who was in Indiana today, missed Cooper's release but told the AP he expected she'd phone him in the next few days.

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