#7 A Century of Death Sentences


My name is Lydia and I am a student of Political Science and History with a specific interest in Criminal Justice. Throughout this course my colleagues and I uncovered forgotten stories of Indiana Prisoners and learned about how the Prison system has evolved and how it effects individuals in Indiana and elsewhere.

Description of Podcast

This episode is focused on the use of the Death Penalty in Indiana comparing the case of Anthony MacDougal in 1883 whose death sentence was commuted by the Indiana Supreme Court after the murder of his wife Mary Elisabeth MacDougal and the sentencing of Paula Cooper in 1985 for the murder of Ruth Pelke. Both of these cases were commuted to life or extended sentences by the Indiana Supreme Court but the reasoning behind the state’s failure to apply the death penalty could not be more different. This podcast compares the two perpetrators as well as the different conditions that determined the outcome of these two individuals lives with over a century between them. The societal conditions of the two cases as well as the ways that the death penalty has evolved in the past century are discussed to explore the way that the death penalty is used in Indiana.

Upon his initial sentencing, McDougal was given the death penalty, which in 1883 meant that he would be publicly hanged. Following an appeal to the Supreme Court McDougal had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment, which is common in the state of Indiana, 97 Hoosiers have received a death sentence but according to public records the state has only executed 20 individuals. The commutation of Anthony McDougal’s sentence from Death to Life in Prison is poorly recorded, and his ability to write a Life Imprisonment statement following having his original sentence overturned helps to piece together the history of the death penalty in Indiana.

By July of 1989 the sentencing of Paula Cooper to the death penalty at just 15 years old made it to the Indiana Supreme Court, just as the case of Anthony MacDougall did 100 years prior, and yielded fairly similar results. First of all, the sentence for Paula Cooper was reduced from the death penalty to a 60 year sentence, this was based on precedents set in the US Supreme court in cases such as Thompson v. Oklahoma another case in which the death penalty was commuted due to the age of the perpetrator. This case also resulted in the change of the Indiana State Law regarding death penalty raising the age of eligibility for the death sentence from a 10 years of age to 16 years of age at the time of the offense. 

In 2015 although she had been released from the Indiana Women’s Prison after 28 years, Paula Cooper died by suicide  in her home citing her guilt in her suicide note. Although her sentence was commuted, her treatment before and during her time in prison still drove her to the point of suicide which is truly tragic.

Sources: (MLA)

Blanco, Juan Ignacio. “Paula R. Cooper.” Murderpedia, murderpedia.org/.
“Death Penalty Facts.” Indiana Government, 7 Aug. 2015, in.gov.

Dee Yan-Key. “Dark Days.” 28 Oct. 2018, freemusicarchive.org/music/Dee_Yan-Key/years_and_years_ago/10–Dee_Yan-Key-Dark_Days.

Disis, Jill, and Tim Evans. “Paula Cooper, Once Youngest Indiana Death Row Inmate, Found Dead.” Indianapolis Star, IndyStar, 14 Dec. 2016, indystar.com/.

Evans, Tim. “Ind. Woman Sentenced to Death at 16 to Leave Prison.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 17 June 2013, www.usatoday.com/.
“IC 35-50-2.” Indiana Government, in.gov.
“PAULA COOPER CASE RECORDS, 1986-1989.” Edited by Charles Latham, Indiana History, Indiana Historical Society – Manuscripts and Archives, indianahistory.org.
Press, Associated. “Pope Urges Clemency for Murderer, 18.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 27 Sept. 1987, articles.latimes.com.