PAULA COOPER was 15 when she stabbed and killed an elderly Bible teacher during a robbery. The black teen-ager was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. She is awaiting execution in Indiana. Wayne Thompson was also 15 when he and three adults killed Mr. Thompson's brother-in-law in a rural town in Oklahoma. The white youth and his companions were all found guilty of premeditated murder and sentenced to death. Thompson is also on death row.
The Cooper case received national publicity recently when Pope John Paul II - on tour in the United States - urged that the young woman be granted gubernatorial clemency.
The Thompson case will also soon be under the spotlight - when it goes before the United States Supreme Court in November.
The underlying issue before the justices will not be the guilt or innocence of the condemned - but whether it is constitutional to execute persons who committed crimes as juveniles.
There are 32 youths on death rows now in 15 states across the US. They were all under 18 years of age when they committed capital crimes.
In the past eight years, however, only three juveniles have been put to death, and there is a steady trend across the nation toward raising the minimum age for executions.
Until recently, Indiana's age eligibility for capital punishment was 10 - the lowest in the US. It has now been raised to 16 - but this was after Miss Cooper's sentencing.
Wayne Thompson's lawyers hold - in their brief before the Supreme Court - that imposing the death penalty on minors is cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited by the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. They also state that ``condemning a child or adolescent to death serves no legitimate purpose.'' It is further argued that juveniles are more impulsive than adults and less able to weigh the consequences of their acts; that the capacity for remorse and rehabilitation is greater in youth than adults; and that the death penalty is no more a deterrent to future crime than is a long prison term.
Oklahoma's Court of Criminal Appeals - refusing to reverse Thompson's capital sentence - had ruled that once a minor is certified to stand trial as an adult, he or she may also be sentenced to death without violating the Constitution.
The Supreme Court only once before, in 1982, was confronted with the issue of whether a juvenile can be given the death penalty. In this case, however, the justices reversed the conviction of the condemned youth on other grounds, without deciding on the age factor.
The Thompson case comes during an ongoing nationwide controversy over capital punishment. Last year the Supreme Court dealt a major setback to those who would abolish the practice altogether - for both juveniles and adults. The justices by a 5-to-4 vote refused to outlaw the death penalty in the 36 states that still permit it even in the face of evidence that racial bias could be present in the sentencing process.
The high court, however, has not been reluctant to overthrow individual capital sentences in cases where the justices find discriminatory or improper procedures by prosecutors and judges.
Victor Streib - a former defense attorney and juvenile court prosecutor and now professor of law, who specializes in studies on youth and the penal system - points out that people who have not yet reached the age of majority have always been treated differently by the US legal system.
``Children have a very special place in life which law should reflect,'' Mr. Streib writes in his forthcoming book, ``Death Penalty for Juveniles'' (University of Indiana Press). The volume is scheduled for publication Nov. 9, the day the court is to hear the Thompson case. The scholar-lawman says that his research indicates that many firm proponents of the death penalty waver when it comes to executing minors. He adds that even when juveniles intentionally commit a murder, ``It is unlikely they have thought about it with insight and understanding ... so the punishment should be short of the punishment for a comparable adult's act.''
Professor Streib also says the likelihood of ``reform and rehabilitation'' has greater potential for a youth than for a hardened criminal adult. ``Long-term imprisonment holds out the possibility that a destructive teen-ager will become a productive adult.''
Whether Streib's reasoning is correct, the time has come to abolish the death penalty for youths. Violent crime cannot go unpunished. But a society that values human life must make every effort to salvage its young people - even those who have committed deeds obnoxious to civil people.
Revenge and retribution are poor reasons to legally take a life - any life - and especially that of a juvenile.
A Thursday column