For years the picture in his head that haunted him was of his beloved “Nana,” Ruth Elizabeth Pelke, a woman who taught Bible classes to local children in her hometown of Gary, Ind. In 1985 she was stabbed 33 times by a group of local teenagers who stole 10 dollars from the 78-year-old woman and let her bleed to death on her living room floor.
It was the image in his head when he sat through the trial of Paula Cooper, the 15-year-old female who ended his grandmother’s life.
“I remember when they asked me how I felt,” Pelke said Thursday at Jacksonville State University, recalling learning that Cooper was to receive the death penalty. “I said, ‘the judge did what he felt he had to do, but it won’t bring my Nana back.’”
Pelke, 64, was the first of three speakers during an anti-death penalty forum called “A Journey of Hope,” sponsored by the campus Ethics Club. More than 30 people at Houston Cole Library listened to Pelke, Callie Greer, and a representative of the Birmingham-based Justice and Mercy group, Brandon Fountain, all present their stance against the death penalty. The event doubled as the first meeting of the semester for the club.
“We’re all about dialogue,” said Scott Beckett, the faculty adviser for the Ethics Club. “Because we’re human, everybody here already has made up their mind, but we’re about dialogue.”
But Pelke hoped his dialogue could possibly persuade death penalty proponents to change their mind — much as he changed his own stance on capital punishment after his grandmother was murdered. Pelke said his Christian upbringing taught him the death penalty was an acceptable form of justice, but began to question that notion in the years that followed Cooper’s sentencing.
Over time, the image of his grandmother, the one he carried with him through the trial of Cooper, was replaced by another image he couldn’t shake — that of Cooper’s grandfather, shouting out “they’re going to kill my baby!” after her sentencing.
Like Pelke, Callie Greer lost a loved one through violence. Her son, Mercury, was murdered in Birmingham, and just like Pelke, sought for forgiveness.
“They kill this boy, give him life sentence or whatever, does that mean Mercury is going to come back?” Greer said. “Are you telling me I should put his family through this to get closure? Now I get closure? Uh-uh, I get nightmares.”
Not all the details of the two stories were the same, though.
“Black on black crime is just treated as another case,” said Greer, explaining her story didn’t “make it to Oprah” like Pelke’s more famous story.
Fountain said Greer’s claims of racial bias in the death penalty process are supported by facts. Fountain, the final speaker, presented a case against death penalty using state statistics.
“There’s not a racial issue in Alabama’s death penalty?” Fountain asked the audience, pointing out that 35 percent of murder victims in Alabama are white, while 80 percent of death row inmates were found guilty of killing a white victim.
“Now how does that work?” he said.
The audience responded with applause, however, to Pelke’s tale about his grandmother, and finding a way to forgive the teenage girl who murdered her more than 20 years ago.
Since his turnaround on the issue of justice and the death penalty, Pelke started his own foundation and talks at forums and events all over the world in opposition to the death penalty. He said he made a promise to God to connect with Cooper and her family, to tell her about his grandmother’s life and do everything he could to save Cooper’s.
And on July 1, 2013, Cooper, whose sentence was reduced thanks to Pelke’s efforts, will be able to walk out of Indiana state prison — where Pelke will be there to greet her.
Now the image he can’t forget is the drive home after meeting Cooper in prison for the first time in 1994.
“The word that coming back to my mind was “wonderful,’” Pelke said. “Because after this terrible thing that happened to Nana, this terrible thing that happened to my family, I had no hate. Only forgiveness.”
Star staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546