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Full Pardon

Murder, Revenge and the Power of Forgiveness



Not to forgive is to be imprisoned by the past. Not to forgive is to yield oneself to another's control. If one does not forgive, then one is controlled by the other's initiatives and is locked into a sequence of act and response. The present is endlessly overwhelmed and devoured by the past. Forgiveness frees the forgiver. It extracts the forgiver from someone else's nightmare. --Lance Morrow, from a 1984 essay

Bill Pelke, a stocky, rough-hewn man who's been a steelworker for 30 years, sits by the Christmas tree in his house in Portage, Indiana, and tries to explain what happened to him one night a decade ago. In 1985 four girls aged 14 to 16 had entered the Gary home of his grandmother, 77-year-old Ruth Pelke, and murdered her. One girl hit her in the head with a vase, and when she fell to the floor another stabbed her with a butcher knife 33 times. The knife thrusts were so violent that many went through the frail woman's body and shredded the rug beneath her, even left marks on the wooden floor.

The four assailants then stole $10 and Ruth Pelke's car, which they drove around the neighborhood, giving rides to their friends. They were quickly apprehended and confessed to the crime. Their youth and the atrocious nature of their actions sparked widespread publicity and an outpouring of public rage. Paula Cooper, the 15-year-old who'd wielded the knife, was sentenced to death. The other three were given prison terms of 25 to 60 years.

Bill Pelke attended Cooper's 1986 sentencing and had "no problem" with her receiving a death sentence. "People claimed if she didn't get death it meant my grandmother wasn't an important enough person," he says. "I believed that. So did our whole family."

But the sentence brought Pelke neither comfort nor closure. At the time his life seemed to be coming apart. His marriage had ended in divorce several years before, he'd gone through a painful bankruptcy, and he and his girlfriend had just broken up. One night early in 1987 Pelke was pondering these things as he sat in the tiny cab of the crane mounted near the roof of the Bethlehem steel plant in Burns Harbor waiting for the crew to show up below. "I sat there for what seemed a very long time, wondering if anyone could be more miserable than me."

Then unexpectedly he recalled the image of Paula Cooper standing before the judge at her sentencing with tears coming down her face and staining her prison dress. And he heard the voice of Cooper's grandfather in the rear of the courtroom when he said, "They gonna kill my baby!"

Then the image shifted to the face of Pelke's grandmother, and there were tears on her face too. "But they were tears of love and compassion. She had been an active Baptist all her life. She sang in the church choir, visited the sick, gave Bible lessons to the neighborhood kids. That's why she let the girls in her house."

At that moment Pelke became convinced that his grandmother would have forgiven her killers, and he realized that he couldn't be faithful to her memory unless he did the same. "I forgave Paula and the others for Nana's sake, right there and then. It was a done deal."

He says it seemed as if a huge burden--everything that had been troubling him--lifted off his shoulders when he made that decision. He wrote a letter to Cooper, who was being held at the state prison in Indianapolis, and she wrote back saying she was sorry for what she'd done. That began a stream of calls and letters between the two that has lasted for ten years. Pelke visited her grandfather and brought him a basket of fruit. He got in touch with lawyers and spearheaded a campaign to overturn Cooper's death sentence.

Pelke's relatives were astonished and angry, and he says many of them, including his own father, are still upset about his change of heart. His ex-girlfriend thought at first that he'd lost his mind, but they later reconciled and were married in 1988.

Between 1986 and 1989 Pelke lobbied against the Indiana law that made children as young as ten eligible for the death penalty. He was invited to Italy to appear on a television program, and Pope John Paul II later requested that Cooper be pardoned. In 1989 the Indiana legislature raised the age of eligibility to 16, and the state's supreme court commuted Cooper's sentence to 60 years. She told television reporters, "I think if there had been somebody like Bill Pelke in my life earlier it would have made a difference for me."

Pelke also became active in Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation (MVFR), a national organization that opposes the death penalty. Headquartered in Atlantic, Virginia, the group was founded in 1976, after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. It contends that society does precious little to help survivors work through their grief and come to accept their loss. In fact, says MVFR executive director Patricia Bane, many victims' rights groups, especially those organized out of local prosecutors' offices, try to keep families upset and angry. This ensures that their testimony at the trials of the accused is emotional, which can lead to harsher sentences; it also makes the families more compelling advocates of more restrictions on parole, more prison construction, and broader use of capital punishment. But, says Bane, "If we're ever going to break the cycle of violence people have got to heal, and keeping them permanently hostile is not the way to do it."

The organization's 4,000 members now include families of those sentenced to death, victims of crimes other than murder, and individuals who simply oppose the death penalty. Illinois has 98 members.

During the past three years Pelke has been all over the country organizing intensive two-week educational programs on forgiveness sponsored by MVFR, Journeys of Hope. In 1993, the first year of the journeys, 125 speakers visited churches and schools in northern Indiana, Ohio, and the Chicago area. Similar programs were later organized in Georgia, California, and Virginia. Pelke says the project has a special power because the speakers aren't talking about forgiveness as an abstract concept. Besides Pelke, the roster includes a mother whose seven-year-old daughter was kidnapped and murdered, a man who was falsely convicted of killing his wife, and Jeanne Bishop and Jennifer Bishop Jones, whose sister was brutally murdered in Winnetka.

In Pelke's driveway sits a secondhand bus he just bought for $7,500. In the next year he plans to retire from the steel mill and organize Journeys of Hope full-time. "We've got to get the message around," he says. "Vengeance is not the answer to anything. Compassion is. If folks would only understand how they're hurting themselves by hanging on to their anger they'd be apt to change. I tell people, don't forgive just for the sake of the one who did the wrong. I say, do it for yourself!"

In her tiny office in a Rockford public-housing project Constance Mitchell preaches the gospel of forgiveness to anyone who'll listen. "You gotta let go," she says. "I had a hole inside me so big I couldn't work. I was a total wreck."

Her 13 years of torment began in 1981 when a man named Ray Lee Stewart went on a shooting spree in Rockford and Beloit, Wisconsin. He reportedly held a grudge against whites for the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, but among those he killed were two blacks, including one of Mitchell's five children, Albert Pearson, who was 19. He was gunned down in a Rockford grocery store along with Mitchell's cousin, Alex Fredd. Stewart was apprehended and given a death sentence in 1982.

"Always, always I thought about my son, about my loss," says Mitchell, who's president of the residents' council in her building. "I never went to the trial or read about it. I didn't want to go through it all again. I got used to feeling like a victim of that man. I wasn't getting any better."

In 1995 the Rockford Salvation Army announced that it was raising funds through the sale of paintings produced by Illinois death-row convicts, including Ray Lee Stewart. People wrote letters to the local paper, threatening to boycott the Salvation Army if anyone dared to purchase the paintings by Stewart. It was later announced in the paper that all the paintings had been sold except his.

Mitchell read that story. "I sat down in the reclining chair in my room, held my head in my hands, and prayed to God." For the first time she thought about Stewart's mother and the devastation she must have felt at this additional rebuke. "And I thought if just one person could forgive him it might make a difference--for his mother and for him. So I did it right there in my chair."

She wrote a letter about her decision, which was published in the paper, and Stewart's mother wrote to thank her. "We met and talked a long time about our losses," says Mitchell. "I began to feel better."

Then Stewart himself wrote to her, and a series of calls and letters followed. "He apologized," says Mitchell, "and he just kept saying it over and over."

Stewart's execution had been scheduled for September 1996, and Mitchell tried to save him. "I believe he was a changed person," she says. "I grew to like him." She went to Springfield for a clemency hearing before the Illinois Prison Review Board and begged the members to recommend that his sentence be commuted. "I told them, 'I don't want anyone killed for my son. Albert's spirit is doing fine. He's OK, and I see him as happy.' I told them I'd certainly hate to go to my own grave without forgiving Ray Lee Stewart."

But at the hearing Mitchell's cousin described his continuing grief at the loss of his brother and urged the board to uphold the death sentence. It did, and Governor Jim Edgar concurred that death was the "absolutely appropriate punishment" for Stewart. He was executed by lethal injection on September 18.

"Forgiveness has given me a lot of peace," says Mitchell. "I hold Ray Lee Stewart dear to my heart, and I can only hope if someone takes my life someday my children would forgive them too."

For Jeanne Bishop, perhaps the best-known advocate of compassion in the Chicago area, forgiveness remains frustratingly elusive. "I am ready to forgive," she says. "I always hold out hope for forgiveness." But she says she can't technically forgive the teenager convicted of murdering her sister and brother-in-law because he adamantly denies committing the crimes.

Bishop, an attorney in the juvenile division of the Cook County Public Defender's Office, says she wishes she could have the peace of mind that Bill Pelke has. "I believe in the possibility of redemption for every human being. But how do you reconcile with a person who says he didn't do it?"

In April 1990 Bishop's pregnant sister Nancy and her husband, Richard Langert, were shot to death in their Winnetka town house. Charged with the murders was 16-year-old David Biro, a student at New Trier High School and an alleged admirer of Charles Manson. A mountain of evidence linked him to the crime, and in 1991 he was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. At the trial he claimed that another teen shot the Langerts, and he's maintained that position ever since.

Bishop says her first reaction to the tragedy was anger and confusion. "I was mad at God. I wondered what good prayer was, why God didn't intervene to stop evil."

But gradually she took a different view. She remembered that in her dying moments Nancy had drawn a heart and the letter U in her own blood. "Nancy left a legacy of love," Bishop says, "so why should we memorialize her death with hatred and vengeance? I believe love is stronger than death."

On December 18 a jury awarded the Bishop family $41 million in the civil suit they'd brought against the convicted killer, but Bishop wants it made clear that the intention is neither revenge nor financial gain. Her family has no expectation of ever seeing a penny of the money, since Biro has no resources, but they were concerned that he might sell the rights to his story. "We simply want to make sure that no one ever profits from this awful crime," says Bishop.

In the meantime Bishop and her sister, Jennifer Jones, have become outspoken opponents of the death penalty, working with MVFR and the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty. They urge people who've had relatives murdered to stop dwelling on hate and get on with their lives. "When I say I'm ready to forgive David, that doesn't mean I'm some bleeding-heart liberal," says Bishop. "I separate these things. Like all of us, he has to be held responsible for his actions."

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