Advocates say some prisoners prove they deserve freedom

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Supporters of giving juvenile lifers a chance to get out of jail point to Jennifer Pruitt as evidence of why the cases should be reviewed.

Pruitt, now 40, was 16 years old when she was arrested in the death of an elderly Pontiac neighbor, Elmer Heichel, 75, during a 1992 robbery. She was convicted of felony murder and armed robbery. While there was testimony the co-defendant did the stabbing, Pruitt’s trial attorney, Mitchell Ribitwer, said the jury felt she was equally responsible for assisting in the crime.

Her 23-year-old female co-defendant, also convicted, has since admitted she acted alone in the killing.

“She (Pruitt) had a horrible home life and looked to this other woman at times of trouble,” said one of Pruitt’s current attorneys, Deborah LaBelle. “She went along and was charged as an aider and abettor, but she never participated in the killing. She was the one who fled the house and called police and reported the incident.

“But since this, she has turned herself around and even the judge who sentenced her regrets giving her life without parole.”

Retired Judge Fred Mester, on the bench for 26 years, recalled the case of Pruitt, one of several people he has sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Hundreds of Mich. juvenile lifer cases to be reviewed

“I saw her (Pruitt) about four weeks ago,” Mester said. “I went with her attorney and visited her at the Huron Valley Facility for women ... I wanted to see how she had grown and was very impressed by her and the way she has handled herself.

“When I first met her (1993), she was walking the streets of Pontiac without any moral guidance and had nothing but bad influences and bad decisions. Now, she has a degree, been a model prisoner and helped the administration with kids with suicidal tendencies.”

Mester said when he sentenced Pruitt, she was a few weeks shy of her 18th birthday. If he had sentenced her as a juvenile, she could only have been held in prison until 21 — not enough time, Mester estimated, for rehabilitation.

“At sentencing, my last words to her were something along the lines of ‘you will never see the outside of a prison again,’ ” Mester said. “I regret saying that and I wish I hadn’t passed that sentence. But that was what we had. Now we have options. Some young people have done horrible things but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a second chance. With a chance, they can do wonderful things and change their lives.

“Juveniles can’t drive, vote or legally drink. They have limitations, yet we sentence them as adults. Some shouldn’t be let out but some should. We have to be more mature in our approach.”

Efforts by The Detroit News to reach Heichel’s family members were unsuccessful.

LaBelle, whose Ann Arbor firm is handling many of the juvenile lifer cases in Michigan, also knows Pruitt well. Pruitt was sexually assaulted by guards and is one of a group of 500 inmates who sued the Michigan Department of Corrections over mistreatment and received a $100 million settlement.

“She has been punished enough,” LaBelle said.

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