The 43-year-old woman who was at one point the youngest U.S. inmate awaiting a death sentence was released from prison on Monday after becoming both a cause for controversy and a college graduate while in jail.
The Indianapolis Star reported that Paula Cooper walked out of the Rockville Correctional Institute shortly after 10 a.m. local time, after serving 28 years out of a possible 60 of her amended sentence for killing Bible teacher Ruth Pelke in Gary, Indiana in May 1985. At the time, offenders as young as 10 years old were eligible for the death penalty.
The Associated Press reported that Cooper confessed to stabbing Pelke 33 times with a butcher knife before she and three other girls ransacked her house and left with $10 and her car. Her accomplices served between 25 and 60 years in prison, while Cooper was slated to die in the electric chair.
In 1987, Pope John Paul II supported calls for clemency toward Cooper, who was 16 at the time of her sentencing. A year later, a priest delivered a petition with more than 2 million signatures calling for the sentence to be overturned.
In 1989, the state Supreme Court changed Cooper’s sentence to the 60-year term, following the passage of a new state law raising the minimum age for Death Penalty eligbility to 16. While in jail, Cooper earned a bachelor’s degree and tutored other inmates.
Pelke’s grandson, Bill Pelke, told CNN he forgave Cooper for her crime three months after her sentencing. But the two did not meet face-to-face until 1994, after which they began to become friends, trading emails once a week before her release.
“She is supposed to call me when she gets out, and we’re supposed to meet and go shopping,” Bill Pelke told CNN. “I told her whenever she got out, I’d treat her. I have a friend who would like to buy her an outfit, and I want to buy her a computer.”
Watch the Star‘s report on Cooper’s release, posted Monday, below.