Grandson of murder victim shares hopes to abolish death penalty

David Hutter

Spurred by the conviction that revenge never leads to healing, Bill Pelke has dedicated his life to working to abolish the death penalty in as many places as possible. His mission stems from the murder of his grandmother, he told students in a lecture in Buckman Theatre on Oct. 3.

In May 1985, Ruth Pelke was stabbed to death in her home in Gary, Indiana, by four teenage girls. At trial the next year, each one of the four girls was found guilty in connection with the woman’s death. Paula Cooper, who the jury determined was the leader of the group, was sentenced to death for her role in the woman’s death, Pelke said.

Initially, Pelke supported the judge’s ruling. But after a few months, he began to question his mode of thinking. Eventually, he realized that the death of the girl would not bring him any level of peace.

“If we can take a man and send him to the moon, we can figure out how to deal with people who commit violent crimes. We should lock them up for life but we should not kill them,” Pelke said.

Pelke was working as a crane operator at Bethlehem Steel one Sunday in November 1986 when he started to question why he wanted Paula Cooper to be put to death. With tears welling in his eyes, he concluded that his grandmother, who was a devout Christian and a forgiving and compassion person, would have wanted him to forgive the four girls who killed her.

“As I sat up there in the crane that night, I prayed: ‘God, please help me to show love and compassion to Paula Cooper and her family,'” he said.

Ruth Pelke was very active in her church and she taught Bible lessons from her home, Pelke said. The 78-year-old woman welcomed the four teenage girls into her house after they told her they wanted her to teach them a Bible lesson. After Ruth Pelke turned her back to retrieve her teaching materials, one of the girls threw a vase at her, knocking her to the ground. Two of the girls then proceeded to stab her with a knife a total of 33 times.

Citing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount parable in which Jesus told his disciples they should constantly forgive every person who wronged them, Pelke told the Quinnipiac students that he knew the only way he would ever be able to heal from the pain of his grandmother’s death was through forgiving his grandmother’s killers.

“Forgiveness is supposed to be a continual lifelong thing,” Pelke said. “Revenge is never, ever the answer.” In 1989, the court commuted Paula Cooper’s death sentence after a petition Pelke began against the death penalty was signed by two million people. Since the middle 1990s, Pelke has spoken about the cause of abolishing capital punishment at thousands of colleges, houses of worship, and governmental committees throughout the United States and many other nations. In 1996, he formed a group called “Journey of Hope . from Violence to Healing,” an organization of murder victim family members who oppose the death penalty.

“The death penalty is morally wrong. It is always morally wrong to take the life of a human being,” Pelke said.

Robert Nave, the coordinator of the State Death Penalty Abolition of Amnesty International, is optimistic that the messages of people like Pelke are influential in getting people to talk about the issue of capital punishment.

“The subject of the death penalty is not one people talk about easily,” Nave said. “So when people hear stories like Bill Pelke’s, it is really helpful in generating support to abolish the death penalty.”

The lecture was sponsored by the Albert Schweitzer Institute, Branches Catholic Campus Ministry, and the pro-life group VITA.