Murder victim's grandson and a death penalty exoneree find forgiveness

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It seemed like any other evening shift at the steel company as Bill Pelke sat up in the cab of his crane. But that night changed his life forever.

He spent the time reflecting on the life and death of his grandmother, Ruth. In the year and a half since her murder, Pelke had yet to ask God why He had taken her.

Ruth was a faithful Baptist who had a passion for telling Bible stories to children. "Whenever the church doors were open, she was there," he said. The four teenage girls involved in her robbery turned murder first came to her home on the pretense of wanting to hear about Christ.

Pelke thought about how his grandma would've felt at the trial when her murderer, 15-year-old Paula Cooper, was sentenced to death. He pictured his grandmother and imagined tears of love and compassion streaming down her cheeks.

He thought about when Jesus instructed His apostles to forgive not seven times, but 70 times seven, or when He was dying on the cross and cried out to heaven, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

"Paula Cooper didn't know what she was doing when she stabbed my grandma 33 times," Pelke thought to himself. He began to pray, and knew he no longer wanted to see Cooper die. As he left work that night, Pelke resolved to share his grandmother's faith with Cooper.

Pelke fought for the young woman's sentence to be served in prison and years later co-founded Journey of Hope, a nationwide group of family members of murder victims who speak about forgiveness and alternatives to the death penalty. Pelke recently spoke at Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church in Arlington, along with death penalty exoneree Shujaa Graham.

Other members of Journey of Hope attended the presentation, including George White, whose wife was murdered. White - though innocent - served two years in prison for the crime before being exonerated. The real killer has never been found.

SueZann Bolser's father, a Church of the Brethren pastor in Florida, was stabbed to death while Bolser was left for dead beside him. Though years had passed since her father's death, Bolser, as with the others, still teared up telling the story.

In spite of the tremendous pain they felt and the anger they held onto, sometimes for years, each of the Journey of Hope members spoke about the freeing power of forgiveness. Letting go of their hatred relieved them of a tremendous burden. "Revenge is never ever the answer," said Pelke. "Forgiveness is a way of life."

Graham had been in juvenile detention facilities for much of his youth. He ended up on California's San Quentin death row in 1976 after being accused of murdering a guard during an uprising at Deul Vocational Institute. Students in the community rallied to his defense and mobilized others to fight for his cause.

Graham suffered while in prison. "I never contemplated suicide when I was on death row, but I can remember nights where things got so bad that it was perfectly ok if I went to sleep and never woke up," he said.

After four draining trials, the jury found him not guilty. "After 11 years, my nightmare had finally come to an end," he said. "But you never forget, you always remember. What if California would have had their way?"

Reading the work of Martin Luther King Jr. helped Graham cope with the anger he felt after his time in prison. "I had to fight hard to deal with that anger," he said. He hopes Americans can move past using violence as a solution to violence.

"We as a society can evolve and protect our citizens without resorting to violence. What's the difference between a murderer and a state who murders?" he said. "Please do not continue to go down this dangerous and endless cycle of violence. Everyone is a human being first and foremost."

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016