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A masterful, revelatory work of literary non-fiction about a teenage girl’s shocking crime—and its extraordinary aftermath

On a spring afternoon in 1985 in Gary, Indiana, a fifteen-year-old girl kills an elderly woman in a violent home invasion. In a city with a history of racial tensions and white flight, the girl, Paula Cooper, is Black, and her victim, Ruth Pelke, is white and a beloved Bible teacher. The press swoops in.

When Paula is sentenced to death, no one decries the impending execution of a tenth grader. But the tide begins to shift when the victim’s grandson Bill forgives the girl, against the wishes of his family, and campaigns to spare her life. This tragedy in a midwestern steel town soon reverberates across the United States and around the world—reaching as far away as the Vatican—as newspapers cover the story on their front pages and millions sign petitions in support of Paula.

As Paula waits on death row, her fate sparks a debate that not only animates legal circles but raises vital questions about the value of human life: What are we demanding when we call for justice? Is forgiveness an act of desperation or of profound bravery? As Bill and Paula’s friendship deepens, and as Bill discovers others who have chosen to forgive after terrible violence, their story asks us to consider what radical acts of empathy we might be capable of.

In Seventy Times Seven, Alex Mar weaves an unforgettable narrative of an act of violence and its aftermath. This is a story about the will to live—to survive, to grow, to change—and about what we are willing to accept as justice. Tirelessly researched and told with intimacy and precision, this book brings a haunting chapter in the history of our criminal justice system to astonishing life.

“Haunting…You’ll find yourself lying awake in the small hours, turning it over and over in your mind…Seventy Times Seven is a book about the promise and limits of empathy—the ways in which we see one another, and the ways in which we cannot…Seventy Times Seven gives readers an unflinching glimpse into brutality, pain, loneliness, rage, and revenge, and asks if regret, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness can be enough to bridge the gulfs of race, class, and ideology that so often divide us…Full of questions and painful ambiguities—and Mar is courageous enough to leave most of her questions unanswered.”

The Washington Post

“Mar’s narrative is probing, careful, elegant, and sure; each page yields a new dimension of the story and requires us to reengage with the facts anew. This is a complicated tale, gracefully told, that will engross readers for years to come.”

New York Magazine (The Best Books of 2023)

“Riveting…[Mar] chronicles Cooper’s case with sensitivity and addresses challenges of juvenile punishment with insight…A probing and moving book.”

The Wall Street Journal

“A compassionate account of mercy for a teenage girl on death row…[This book] demonstrate[s] the impact that great true crime can have…giv[ing] a full accounting of not just the details of the crimes but of the lives of those affected by violence, exploring whether the legal system can truly provide justice.”

The New York Times (Opinion)

“In 1985, four Indiana teenage girls carried out a senseless killing. This gripping tale of the fallout focuses on forgiveness: what it is, who can give it, whether it really changes anything in a culture superficially fixated on amends.”

The New York Times Book Review‘s “Editors’ Choice”

“…unputdownable. With its blend of solid research, unflinching reportage, and powerful sensitivity, this is a book we’ll be talking about for some time to come.”

—Amazon “Books We’re Talking About” (Editors’ Pick)

“[An] 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.”


“In the hands of a less capable journalist and writer, the nuances of Paula Cooper’s death penalty trial, the examination of her previous, horrifying home life, and the very question of what constitutes justice might all become too much for one book to bear the weight of, but Alex Mar never falters. Instead, she simply digs deeper, talks to more people, and ultimately gets as close to the truth as she possibly can through dogged research and clear, concise storytelling. The result, Seventy Times Seven: A True Story of Murder and Mercy, stands as not only riveting but also as a meditation on a broken justice system, the idea of forgiveness when the circumstances are so grim, and the nature of justice itself.”   


“The only way this country will ever free itself of the moral stain that is capital punishment is through stories like the one Mar tells in Seventy Times Seven: of individual compassion and moral courage.”

—Jonny Diamond, Literary Hub (“Most Anticipated Books of 2023”)

“Mar’s expansive, humanitarian legal history is also an investigation of belief . . . This is an unsettling look at the recent past and a profoundly affecting read.”

—Booklist (starred review)

“An engrossing study of faith, forgiveness, and justice . . . Deeply reported and vividly written, this is a harrowing and thought-provoking portrait of crime and punishment.”

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A powerful story of violence and its aftereffects, empathy and its limits, forgiveness and its enduring power.”

Goodreads (“Readers’ Most Anticipated Books of Spring”)

“A probing examination of the intersection of race, crime, and punishment.”


“A tautly written, wholly empathic work that will stay with you long after you’ve read it.”

Vol. 1 Brooklyn

“Alex Mar’s bold yet sensitive account of one of America’s youngest death row inmates—and the people whose lives she forever changed—is intimately reported, deeply moving, and unforgettable.”

—Robert Kolker, bestselling author of Hidden Valley Road (Oprah’s Book Club)

“In Seventy Times Seven, Alex Mar has reached back to the 1980s to explore a shocking murder case. But this book is not only about crime and punishment; it raises urgent questions that are common to all of us—about how children develop into social beings, about who is capable of rehabilitation, and about how we mend the damage that runs through generations. Deeply researched and deeply felt, Seventy Times Seven is an absorbing work of social history and a story about the mystery and miracle of forgiveness. It is a book of awesome scope, and it deserves to be read with attention.”

—Hilary Mantel, Booker Prize-winning author of the Wolf Hall trilogy

Seventy Times Seven is a devastating and essential book, a meticulous deconstruction of the social fears and personal calculations that built and still uphold the death penalty in America. A brilliant reporter and empathetic narrator, Alex Mar has written the truest kind of crime drama, unafraid of rendering our narratives about justice less comforting.”

—Sierra Crane Murdoch, Pulitzer Prize finalist for Yellow Bird

“Alex Mar’s Seventy Times Seven is a monumental achievement, probing the toughest questions that all nonfiction crime narratives must ask and emerging with a story of profound moral inquiry, the limits of where we can find justice, and the power of compassion, often in the most surprising quarters. When we wish to understand ourselves and society at our worst and at our best, look no further than this book.”

—Sarah Weinman, author of The Real Lolita and Scoundrel