Friday, January 20, 2012

Speaking in Alabama

From today's Anniston (Alabama) Star, an article that features MVFHR board member Bill Pelke:

There are some images that Bill Pelke can’t erase from his memory.

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 Grier, 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 Grier 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?” Grier 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 Grier, explaining her story didn’t “make it to Oprah” like Pelke’s more famous story.

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