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October 28, 2009

Anti-death penalty activists journey to Louisville

When an Indiana judge sentenced 16-year-old Paula Cooper to die in the electric chair for murdering an elderly woman, the victim’s grandson initially believed the punishment was deserved.

After all, Cooper led the way as a group of teenage girls knocked on 78-year-old Ruth Pelke’s front door under the pretense that they were interested in joining her Bible study class. Once inside, one of the girls smashed a vase over her head, and Cooper then pulled out a knife, repeatedly stabbing the victim as her accomplices ransacked the house.

At the time of trial in the summer of 1986, Bill Pelke believed execution was an appropriate punishment for the murder of his grandmother, and he was satisfied when Cooper became the youngest female on death row in America.

But in the following months Pelke dwelled on the fact that his grandmother — a devout Christian — would not have condoned the punishment imposed on her killer. He also came to realize that the impending execution did not ease his grief.

Eventually, Pelke’s view on capital punishment changed, and he dedicated his life to eradicating the practice, eventually quitting his job as a steelworker in Gary, Ind., and founding “Journey of Hope … From Violence to Healing.” The nonprofit abolitionist organization is made up of family members of murder victims, as well as exonerated death row inmates and the relatives of prisoners currently facing execution.

One of his first accomplishments as an activist was achieving a reprieve for Cooper, whose death sentence was commuted in exchange for a 60-year sentence.

Now, Pelke is on a nationwide Journey of Hope tour that will stop in Kentucky later this week. Sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky and the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the tour will stop at seven college campuses across the bluegrass.

“Our main goals with this series are to drum up support for the two pieces of legislation being proposed this upcoming session; one abolition bill, and one bill that would essentially prohibit the state of Kentucky from executing severely mentally ill individuals,” says Katherine Miller, program associate with ACLU-Ky. Those two pieces of legislation will be considered when the General Assembly reconvenes in Frankfort.

During the upcoming programs at Kentucky colleges, Bill Pelke will share his personal story alongside Terri Steinberg, whose son is the youngest prisoner on Virginia’s death row, and Shujaa Graham, who was wrongly convicted of murder in California in 1976, and spent five years on death row before being exonerated.

The Journey of Hope will make two stops in Louisville: The first at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 2, at the University of Louisville's Elaine L. Chao Auditorium; the second at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 5, at Bellarmine University's Horgan Hall. The forums are free and open to the public. For more information, visit www.aclu-ky.org.