The latest book by journalist Alex Mar (Witches of America) is a valuable contribution to the true crime genre. Taking its title from a verse in the Gospel of Matthew, Seventy Times Seven: A True Story of Murder and Mercy begins with a heinous murder but then follows the difficult, inspiring path of forgiveness and redemption traveled by those whose lives were forever altered by that crime.
On May 14, 1985, 15-year-old Paula Cooper and three teenage friends entered the Gary, Indiana, home of Ruth Pelke, a widowed Bible teacher and grandmother approaching her 79th birthday. What began as a hastily conceived plan to snatch cash and jewelry ended with Ruth dead on her living room floor, the victim of an attack so ferocious, Mar writes, that it’s almost unimaginable.
The brutal death of an elderly white woman at the hands of four Black girls in Gary, a city many white residents had fled after the election of its first Black mayor in 1967, sparked public outrage and made prosecutor Jack Crawford’s decision to seek the death penalty an easy one. After pleading guilty without a plea bargain, Paula was sentenced to death, making her, at the time, the youngest person ever to receive the death sentence in modern American legal history and the first female juvenile ever to receive that penalty.
At that point, Paula’s story took an unexpected turn. Sitting in his crane one night at the steel plant where he’d worked for many years, Ruth’s grandson, Bill Pelke, sensed in a moment of profound personal crisis that his grandmother was calling on him to forgive her killer. But Bill went far beyond that single generous act of compassion to embrace an entire life of activism against the death penalty, in solidarity with others who had lost family members to violence. In tandem with Bill’s journey—one that took him across the United States and as far away as the Vatican—Mar describes the efforts of the lawyers who fought tirelessly for the abolition of the death penalty for juveniles.
The details of Paula and Bill’s relationship and how their lives unfolded in the more than four decades after Ruth’s murder are readily available on the internet, but readers should resist the urge to seek them out and instead rely on Mar’s intimate and highly sympathetic account. Anyone moved by Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy, will find Mar’s book a compelling companion piece on the issue of crime and punishment in America. It’s a story that beautifully marries tragedy and hope, illuminating some of the worst and best of which human beings are capable.