Author visits with message of forgiveness
Penny L. Pool: Staff writer for the Randolph Leader February 8, 2012
Bill Pelke told the story last week of the brutal killing of his sweet, white haired grandmother and how her death made a life change for him.
As he travels across the United States and the world he is sometimes joined by those who have had family or friends murdered, or by the family members of those whose family members have been executed. In some cases he is joined by former prisoners who have been exonerated for the crimes they were convicted of committing.
The death penalty was re-established in 1976 and since then 140 people have been exonerated after being sentenced to death for crimes they were convicting of committing.
He now lives in Anchorage, Alaska, where he is president and co-founder of the Journey of Hope...from Violence to Healing. The death penalty means human beings make decisions on who lives and who dies, he said.
He used to live in Indiana. May 14, 1985 was his son’s birthday, but it was also a day he will never forget for other reasons.
Four ninth grade girls decided when they went to lunch to play hooky the rest of the day. They went to the home of one of the girls where they drank beer, wine and smoked some marijuana. They wanted to go to the local arcade and play games but did not have the money.
“Three of them knocked on my grandmother’s door, we called her Nana. She was a very religious woman. She loved God very much,” he said. Nana was constantly at church and did visitation, along with his grandfather until he died. She told Bible stories to children using a flannel graph board and cut out pictures of Bible figures.
As she went to get information from her desk, one girl grabbed a vase and struck the 78-year-old in the head. Someone stabbed her repeatedly while others searched the house for money. They came up with $10 and the keys to her old car, which they stole and took on a joy ride. She died on her dining room floor where the family had held Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving get-togethers.
Pelke’s father found her the next day after Nana didn’t answer the telephone. Law enforcement quickly found the culprits after finding one of the girl’s jackets with her birth control prescription inside. One of them was 16, two 15 were and one was 14.
Anytime anyone 10 years or older in Indiana kills someone they can be tried as an adult. About a year later the main culprit went to trial, Paula Cooper. The four girls got varying sentences from 25 years for the girl who set her up but never went into the house to 60 years. Cooper, who was believed to be the ringleader, got the death penalty. Pelke took off from his job at Bethlehem Steel to go to court.
The judge said when he graduated from Loyola Law school he was against the death penalty, but he sentenced the 15-year-old to death. When the press asked what he thought of it, Pelke said, “The judge did what he had to do, but it wouldn’t bring Nana back.” Cooper was sentenced to death July 11, 1986. The following November Pelke was at work and asked God why he let one on his most precious angles go through this and why his family had to suffer through this?
When Cooper was sentenced a wailing began from an older man crying, “They’re going to kill my baby.” Pelke watched as the man was led from the courtroom. When Cooper was given the opportunity to speak she said she was sorry for what she did, then added but they are doing the same thing to her that she did to Pelke’s grandmother.
At work that November night he felt Nana wanted him to share the love of God. He thought about the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew where Jesus said if you want your father in heaven to forgive you, you have to forgive others. Then Pelke thought about how Jesus said to forgive seventy times seven. He thought about how Jesus forgave while on the cross being crucified.
He knew his faith was calling him to forgive. He thought someday he might forgive. He talked to God, asking Him to give love and compassion. He cried. Then he wrote a letter to Paula Cooper. He learned the most important lesson of his life that night about the healing power of forgiveness and how it brought a tremendous healing. For a year and a half he had pictured his grandmother battered on the dining room floor. After forgiveness, he lost that picture, now seeing her as she lived.
His friends and co-workers didn’t understand. He left work that night feeling God had given him a mission.
He found out Cooper’s grandfather’s name, the man who cried in the courtroom, and went to visit him. He wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper because a lot of people were writing in with their opinions for and against the death penalty. Some said she was too young. Pelke wrote about forgiveness.
People in Europe were interested in the Paula Cooper situation and were fascinated that he forgave. Several reporters came to Indiana for interviews. They could not picture Americans as being forgiving, he said. They visited, then later he flew to Rome to do an interview but there was a wildcat strike and it could not be done. He decided to stay until the strike was over and then tell his story. He spent 19 days there traveling around speaking at high schools, colleges, and churches, including on Vatican radio. He didn’t know much about the death penalty but knew about forgiveness and his Nana’s faith. When he came back he did all the TV shows and a number of magazine interviews.
In the fall of 1989 there were more than two million signed petitions asking for mercy for Cooper, including Pope John the second. Indiana became so concerned the age was raised to 16 years old for the death penalty. The case went to the Indiana Supreme Court and Cooper was removed from death row.
At a march against the death penalty he met Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote “Dead Man Walking.” She has since written the foreword to his book “Journey of Hope…from Violence to Healing.”
There was a talk at these meetings about the fact there are no rich men on death row, the racial imbalances, and how it costs more to execute someone than keep them in prison.
He along with others, advocate for a moratorium on executions for three years while an impartial study is conducted into the fairness of applying the death penalty.
He said that Alabama has the highest per capita death row population and leads the nation. Per capita Alabama executed more people in 2011 than any others state and with six executions ranked second in the nation after Texas.
Among some other statistics is that death row is 50 percent white and 50 percent black although the state population is 70 percent white and 26 percent black. White victims account for 35 percent of murder victims, yet 80 percent of those on death row have been convicted of the murder of a white victim. Of the 55 executed in Alabama since 1986, 44 had been convicted of killing a white victim. Less than 5 percent of the judges presiding over a capital case in Alabama are African American.
Post-conviction DNA testing is often denied in Alabama. The state is the only one not providing attorneys for post-conviction appeals. The Alabama legislature refuses to enact laws enforcing the U.S. Supreme Court prohibition on the execution of mentally retarded individuals. More than a dozen men on death row are now without an attorney and 70 percent on death row had lawyers who were only paid $1000 for preparation of trial.
He has carried this message in 14 Countries and 40 different states, he said. The death penalty is viewed in other countries as a human rights abuse, he said.
He was there at the Vatican with thousands of others when the Pope addressed the world on Christmas day in 1998 and for the first time called for worldwide abolition of the death penalty.
“It’s cruel and barbaric,” Pelke said. “It is barbaric for a Christian society. Pope Paul said it was cruel and unnecessary and it is. We can put someone in prison for a lifetime if that is what is necessary, where they will never hurt another person. We are raised to hate the sin, but not the sinner,” Pelke said. Most people want the death penalty for revenge.
Paula Cooper is not the same person she was at 15. She was raised very abusively. Five or six people shared love and compassion with her. She knows she took someone valuable out of life. She got her GED and her college correspondence degree. After eight years the Discovery Channel asked why he couldn’t visit her and for the first time he was allowed to visit. In the 1990’s he visited her multiple times before moving to Alaska. He recently visited her. She’s 42 now and a wonderful young lady, he said. She is facing release July 1, 2013; he said, 17 months to go.
“I assured her when she gets out I will be there to meet her. My daughter lives in Indianapolis. I told her I would help her find a place to live, a job and help restore her to society,” he said.
“When I think of Nana I picture her smiling, very happy with what I am doing. I know I am doing the right thing. The reason the death penalty is in this country is because Christians allow it to happen,” he said.
People quote the Bible but then they did to support slavery too. There was the Old Testament law, but the law was fulfilled when Jesus came and now people need to live under Jesus’ grace, he said, adding Jesus said “Who is without sin throw the first stone.”