A group of friends and I email each other links to news articles on a regular basis. Sometimes the articles are about interesting, funny, or odd developments. The articles that come to mind recently include the Georgetown law student convicted of running a methamphetamine ring; cat-hoarding; rabid beaver attacks; or this article on therapy llamas. (We have a fun group.) Occasionally we have in-depth back-and-forth discussions about more serious legal topics. By now, two years removed from law school, we have moved to different cities and states and we all practice in different areas of law, which tends to give us very different perspectives on the various topics that pop up.
This week, we’ve had a lively debate about Paula Cooper , the Indiana woman released Monday after having been sentenced to die for a crime she committed at fifteen. The news stories report that she stabbed a 78-year-old woman 33 times with a butcher knife, and was the youngest person in the country sentenced to the death penalty. For reasons that would take up an entirely separate blog article, since she was sentenced in 1986, it has now been deemed unconstitutional to sentence a child to the death penalty. Cooper’s sentence was amended to 60 years, and she was released on Monday after having served more than a quarter of a century behind bars. She will serve time on parole.
The question posed to the group was: would you let this woman out? Out of the group of five lawyers, I was the only one whose initial response was: yes. Granted, I am the only one of the five of us who routinely practices criminal defense, but nonetheless I found the response quite interesting. Admittedly, on an emotional level, it is hard to conceive of a person who took a butcher knife and stabbed an innocent, elderly woman over and over. It is difficult to comprehend that a person could turn her life around and be a good person after something like that. And after all, there is always a risk of reoffending, so perhaps society would be better protected with this person behind bars. Another point well made for not releasing her was that she robbed the victim from her freedom, so the defendant should get the same fate she chose for the victim.
On the other hand, we don’t live in a society that believes in “an eye for an eye” system of punishment, and nor do we have a justice system wherein the victim dictates the punishment (though, interestingly, the victim’s grandson supported the release). Perhaps more importantly for me, I am still naïve enough to believe in second chances. This defendant committed an act at fifteen years old. She was too young to drive, vote, get married, or serve in the military. She was in ninth grade—a freshman in high school. She was young enough that she was considered a “child” by our society’s own standards, and she had experienced things no adult, let alone a child, should have to go through (including physical and sexual abuse). Despite this past, Paula Cooper’s last quarter of a century has been completely dictated by actions she took on one day, in one hour, at fifteen years old. Her name and reputation will forever and permanently be tethered to her fifteen-year-old self. After spending time as the youngest person in the country on death row, Paula Cooper has worked to change a number of things in her life. She has gotten a bachelor’s degree, worked in the prison’s cafeteria, helped train assistance dogs, and she has tutored other inmates.
Should we be fearful of the recidivism rate? Sure. There is always a risk of reoffending. And there is always a risk that someone with no prior record will crack under stress and commit a crime—it happens all the time. Does that mean we lock up every past and future offender and throw away the key? I hope not.
I, for one, certainly hope that society does not forever brand me as exactly the same as I was at fifteen. Paula Cooper’s fifteen-year-old mind made a horrible decision. Since then, she pled guilty, served her sentence, and in the meantime has worked to rehabilitate herself (and rehabilitation is, after all, one of the goals of our criminal justice system). So yes, I would let this woman out. Would you?