Alex Mar returns to bookstores with a true crime: 'Seventy times seven'

A true crime centered on a case that caused a sensation 40 years ago; that of fifteen-year-old black Paula Cooper, sentenced to the electric chair in the first degree for the brutal murder of an elderly white catechist which occurred in 1985 in the suburbs of Gary, Indiana. That death sentence for a minor divided consciences and led to an international mobilization which also and above all involved the Italian media and the Vatican. But the decisive role in finally saving Paula’s life was played by the victim’s nephew, who chose the path of compassion and forgiveness by publicly speaking out against her conviction. ‘Seventy times seven’ (Il Pellegrino Edizioni, translated by Augusto Monacelli) is the result of 5 years of work dedicated to viewing thousands of documents, letters, articles, films and photographs, and interviewing dozens of people, with the aim of clarifying the paradigmatic Cooper affair. To understand what reasons pushed her to this enormous commitment, AGI met the author of the book, the American writer Alex Mar.

The central theme of ‘Seventy Times Seven’ is forgiveness: can it also be said to be that of our time?

The path that leads to forgiveness is made of identification and dialogue: in a time in which, rather than discussing, we tend to announce our own ideas, completing it becomes very complex and difficult. Whether we are talking about a larger conflict or a single crime, the first impulse is always revenge, but it is necessary to learn to live with others. I think it’s important for an author to focus on a single story to tackle big themes: this is what pushed me to delve into Paula Cooper’s story. But I had to work hard to understand who she had been when she was very young, before committing the crime, to be able to feel empathy for her and finally find a way to ask readers to share her. For any type of conflict the process is similar: if we can see those guilty of violence from a human point of view we will be able to think about the punishments they deserve from a human point of view.

A second, important theme raised by your work concerns the racial question: what is its degree of modernity in 2024?

Racial prejudice is unfortunately intrinsic to the American legal system, starting from its foundations. We have been fighting for many years to make it more equal, but I fear it won’t happen soon. The imposition of the death penalty, for example, is more likely if the murder victim is white and in general a crime corresponds to a harsher sentence depending on the color of the skin of the person who suffered it. The protests of a few years ago over the death of George Floyd, which spread throughout the world, clearly demonstrate that a problem exists.

Your book also focuses attention on the issue of child protection: how current is it, especially in some areas of the world?

From a legal point of view, communities everywhere in the world are shocked when very young people commit serious crimes and they find themselves having to deal with the decisions to be made in this regard: on the one hand they want to protect childhood, on the other the community must be kept safe. It is important that children are always seen as children. Even if the story I tell in my book dates back to the 80s and 90s, it remains fundamental even today to define childhood as such and protect it. The US legal system has greatly improved in this sense, but some politicians exploit it to appear tougher on crime.

By the way, here in Italy we don’t understand how the death penalty can still exist in the United States.

Although support for capital punishment is waning, many in the United States believe it will never be abolished, partly for political reasons. Supporting it, as I was saying, is a way to demonstrate to voters that we are inflexible against crime. It should be considered that our culture is founded on the contrast between good and evil and good and bad: this is also why asking for revenge appears easier than messing with a dysfunctional system.

Can capital punishment be eliminated in a world at war?

I think it depends on how much the West respects international law and how much we are really willing to give a legal definition to war crimes. This has a lot to do with the death penalty.

Seventy times seven is a phrase from the Gospel of Matthew, it is the answer given by Jesus to a question from Peter on the limits of forgiveness: what should be the role of religions in this historical moment?

As long as human beings feel the need to give meaning to their lives, many will find it in religion. In so-called secular life it is in fact more difficult to find an ultimate meaning. Personally I find it in my work, but I believe that responding to this research is the task of religions.

By Editor

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