by Kathy Brown - The Optimism Club
Sister Helen Prejean, Bill Pelke and Susan Sarandon
Bill Pelke pointed out that exonerees are not saved by the system, but in spite of it. He said the death penalty is cruel and it is unnecessary, not just to the condemned, but to their families as well.
‘As long has human beings make decisions, they will make mistakes,’ he said. ‘But people will listen to other people’s stories, it’s very compelling.’
Journey of Hope knows that if you can touch people’s hearts you can change their minds. So it is murder victims’ family members who lead the association, which also includes families of the condemned, of the executed, exonerees and general activists. They undertake speaking engagements and tours to reach out to communities, schools and other groups, to help them to understand that there are no number of retaliatory deaths that can replace a loved one. He quoted that the death penalty is nothing more than the ‘animal instinct for gut-level, bloodthirsty revenge.’
Bill and his colleagues believe that love and compassion is the answer. Healing is what victims need, not revenge. Bill himself lost his grandmother to murder… And knew that she would have been horrified to think her murderer would perish in turn. Forgiveness is what has helped Bill to heal.
Bill told us about his grandmother’s killer, Paula Cooper. She was only 15 in 1985 when the murder occurred, but this was prior to the introduction in the USA of legal prohibition of the execution of minors, and so she was sentenced to death. At first, Bill was glad, and wanted nothing more than to see his gentle grandmother’s killer executed; but then upon reflection he came to realise that his grandmother, a Bible teacher, would have wanted compassion. After her conviction, news of the young girl being condemned reached Italy, and a campaign was begun there to petition for Paula Cooper’s life. Bill could scarcely believe the strength of compassion coming from abroad, as in his home state of Indiana everyone wanted the girl dead, and as soon as possible. Ultimately, the state legislators were extremely embarrassed by the international attention and raised the age limit for death eligibility to 16; but no mercy for Paula. Eventually, with Bill speaking out at every turn to say he did not want the girl to be executed, the sentence was commuted to 60 years in prison.
In 2014 Paula Cooper will become eligible for parole. She committed her crime and was condemned at 15. Upon release she will be 44 and a completely different person. Bill has remained in close touch with her over the years, and knows she will need tremendous support and rehabilitation to re-enter the outside world.
‘On the day Paula is released, I will meet her at the gates,’ said Bill. ‘She has already agreed to come with me wherever I want to go. “You saved my life,” she tells me’.
Bill has plans to take Paula touring with him and Journey of Hope to continue telling their story of violence, hurt, lives lost and lives saved, and the reconciliation that has ultimately enriched and directed Bill’s own life.
So in conclusion, the theme of the session was to set the scene for an elaboration on a few of the reasons why the death penalty needs to be abolished, via a pair of extremely close-up and poignant perspectives.
1. The innocent man condemned, who escaped death, and has learned to forgive and completely turned his youthfully ignorant views on their head.
2. And the victim’s family member who not only forgave his grandmother’s killer, but was instrumental in saving her and is a role model for reconciliation and restoration.