In Seventy Times Seven: A True Story of Murder and Mercy, author Alex Mar presents an in-depth account of a violent homicide and its impact on a racially divided community and the individuals involved. Mar not only discusses the fears associated with modern crime and punishment but also addresses the human capacity for compassion and forgiveness. 

In the prologue, Mar writes that “this is a story that asks what any community is willing to accept as just consequences — as justice — for harm done. It is a difficult question, one that each person in this book has been forced to confront. Because whatever the answer, its impact will be more sprawling than predicted, hard to contain. Whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, in ways very great or very small, the fates of neighbors are linked.” 

On a spring afternoon in May 1985, four teenage girls knocked on 78-year-old Ruth Pelke’s door in Gary, Indiana under the guise of looking for religious guidance. Once inside, 15-year-old Paula Cooper attacked Ms. Pelke, bludgeoning, and stabbing her to death. Police quickly arrested Ms. Cooper and the other teenagers involved, who all readily confessed to Ms. Pelke’s murder. Paula Cooper was sentenced to death in 1986, drawing widespread attention to her case and the issue of juveniles and the death penalty. Many surviving Pelke relatives supported Ms. Cooper’s death sentence, but this support did not last with all family members. Bill Pelke, one of Ms. Pelke’s grandchildren, had a revelation that his grandmother would have certainly forgiven Ms. Cooper for her actions, so he must do the same. Mr. Pelke said “that night [he] was convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that [his] grandmother would have had love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family and that she wanted [him] to have that same sort of love and compassion. [He] learned the most important lesson of [his] life that night. [He] realized [he] didn’t have to see somebody else die in order to bring healing from Nana’s death.” 

In 1988, the United States Supreme Court in Thompson v. Oklahoma held that states could not mandate the death penalty for juveniles under 16, and the Indiana Supreme Court commuted Ms. Cooper’s sentence to 60 years in prison. She was released in 2013, twenty-seven years after her initial conviction.  

Encouraged by the teachings of Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus commands Peter to forgive his brother “70 times seven” times, Mr. Pelke co-founded Journey of Hope, an advocacy organization consisting of family members of murder victims who conduct speaking tours on alternatives to the death penalty. Through working with his organization, Mr. Pelke shared his experience and story in more than 40 states and 15 countries. Prior to his death in November 2020, Mr. Pelke served on the board of several anti-death penalty groups, including Death Penalty Action, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights.


Kathryn Miles, We’re Told to Forgive. What Does That Mean?, The New York Times, April 32023

Lisa Murtha, These fam­i­lies lost loved ones to vio­lence. Now they are fight­ing the death penal­ty., America Magazine, December 282017

To learn more about Journey of Hope, vis­it their web­site here.