In 1985 at age 15, Paula Cooper was arrested for the murder of a 78-year-old Indiana Bible study teacher. The following year she was sentenced to death, making the then-16-year-old the youngest person on Death Row. Controversy followed, over her age and the purported racism in the criminal justice system (even Pope John Paul II appealed for mercy). In 1989 her sentence was commuted to 60 years; today, she will leave the Rockville Correctional Facility a free woman. Her Death Row record will likely stand, the Indianapolis Star reports, because the US Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that it's unconstitutional to execute anyone under age 18.
The crime was, in the words of the prosecutor, a horrific one: Cooper and three other teen girls visited Ruth Pelke during their high school lunch break; Pelke let them into her house when they said they wanted Bible study lessons. Instead, they beat and stabbed her more than 30 times as she uttered the Lord's Prayer. They left with $10 and Pelke's car. Cooper was identified as the ringleader; the other teens were convicted of various charges and had all been released by 2008. While in prison, Cooper experienced her share of problems—she was cited for 23 rule violations—but she also earned her GED and ultimately a bachelor's degree, and even befriended Pelke's grandson. "She's a very different person," says her older sister. "There are second chances."