Today's Kentucky State Journal has this article about a Journey of Hope event at Kentucky State University with Terri Steinberg, whose son is on death row in Virginia, Shujaa Graham, whose death sentence was overturned in 1979, and MVFHR board member Bill Pelke. Here's an excerpt:
Pelke, the founder of Journey of Hope, arrived at his argument from the other side. He is a murder victim family member who is morally opposed to the death penalty and has dedicated his life to abolishing the practice.
“The death penalty has nothing to do with the healing,” he says. “It just continues the cycle of violence.”
He’s told his story more 5,000 times, but he still choked up Tuesday during the telling.
Four teenage girls skipped out early from their Indiana high school in 1985. After drinking wine and beer and smoking pot, they decided they needed money to go to a local arcade. One girl knew her neighbor, 78-year-old Ruth Pelke, would invite the other three girls in if they asked for a Bible lesson.
“She was a very religious woman, and her passion was telling Bible stories to young people,” her grandson said.
She invited them in.
One girl hit her over the head with a vase; another pulled a knife and stabbed her. Then another took a turn with the knife. The girls ransacked the house and came up with $10 and an old car.
Paula Cooper, 15 at the time, was the one who first pulled out the knife and was deemed the ringleader. When she was sentenced to the electric chair by the state of Indiana, Pelke supported the judge’s decision.
A year later, however, he asked God for compassion for Cooper and her family.
When he imagined his grandparents’ home, he saw his grandmother butchered to death on the dining room floor where they had celebrated Easter and Christmas and birthdays.
Forgiving Cooper changed that.
He became involved in an international crusade on Cooper’s behalf in 1989, and through those efforts, she was removed from death row and her sentence commuted to 60 years.
When she’s paroled, Pelke hopes she’ll spread her story through Journey of Hope.
“People think, ‘If I get revenge, I’ll feel better,’” he said. “The answer is love and compassion. You’re never going to want to see anyone put in the death chamber.”