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Indiana woman on death row as teen begins life out of prison

By Susan Guyett

INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - An Indiana woman who was sentenced to death at age 16 for killing an elderly Bible study teacher began a new life out of prison on Monday after nearly three decades behind bars, prison authorities said.

Paula Cooper was the youngest person on death row in the United States when she was sentenced in 1986 for the murder committed when she was 15. Her sentence was later commuted to 60 years in prison.

Cooper, 43, left the Indiana Rockville Correctional Facility on Monday and will remain on probation for at least a year, Indiana Department of Corrections spokesman Doug Garrison said. Her location is not being made public and she was not available for comment.

Cooper was convicted, along with her teenage accomplices, of murdering Ruth Pelke, 78, in Gary, Indiana, during their lunch break from high school on May 14, 1985.

"Gary had a lot of crime at that time. It was murder capital of the nation three out of the 12 years I was prosecutor," said attorney Jack Crawford, who was the Lake County prosecutor at the time. "But this case was just off the charts. The level of violence exercised by these four young girls was just unheard of. I mean they just tortured this lady to death."

Cooper received the harshest penalty because she was the ringleader, he said. Her accomplices served prison terms and have been released, according to Garrison.

Public support to spare her the death penalty grew - Crawford recalls receiving a visit from an emissary from Pope John Paul II who asked that Cooper's life be spared.

"Paula Cooper got more sympathy the farther away you got from Gary, Indiana," Crawford said. "Locally there wasn't a lot of sympathy for her and the decision to seek the death penalty was not strongly opposed."

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1988 ruled it unconstitutional to execute a prisoner who was under the age of 16 at the time of the crime. The Indiana Supreme Court commuted Cooper's death sentence in 1989 to 60 years in prison.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court forbade the death penalty for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crime.

Cooper obtained a high school equivalency degree and eventually earned a bachelor's degree while in prison.

She was released after serving less than half of her sentence because of good behavior and other factors, including the college degree, Garrison said.

"The question is can she still make a positive contribution? I hope she can," Crawford said.

(Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Mohammad Zargham)