Juvenile lifer, convicted at 16, gets reduced sentence

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News
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Pontiac — A woman convicted in the 1992 slaying of an elderly Pontiac neighbor was resentenced Thursday in Oakland Circuit Court to 30 to 60 years under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on life sentences for juveniles.

Pruitt, who was arrested at age 16 and convicted in the fatal stabbing of 75-year-old Elmer Heichel during an armed robbery of his home, will be eligible to go before a parole board for consideration in five years.

Several in the courtroom — supporters for inmate Jennifer Pruitt and Heichel — wept or choked back tears as Judge Martha Anderson pronounced her ruling on the case.

Anderson said she has received letters from several people on how Pruitt, now 41, has “used her incarceration to better herself.”

“She is one of the rare few who has become a better person behind bars,” said Anderson, who credited Pruitt with 8,949 days served and ordered her to pay $9,122 in restitution to the victim’s relatives.

Pruitt participated Thursday in the court proceeding via a video conference from prison. Her attorney, Robyn Frankel, had argued that her client had served enough time and suffered enough punishment in the Huron Valley Women’s Facility. During her incarceration, Pruitt was repeatedly sexually assaulted by prison guards yet remained a model inmate who took advantage of every educational program in the facility.

“We had hoped for immediate consideration (for parole) so in that regard I am disappointed,” said Frankel, after the ruling. “But at least Jennifer has a number (of years) rather than life. I am grateful for that and for Judge Anderson’s consideration of my client.”

Assistant prosecutor Tricia Dare and many of Heichel’s relatives had asked that she be resentenced to 40 to 60 years, which would have meant she would have been ineligible for parole for another 15 years.

“I'm not happy,” said Gary King, one of Heichel’s grandchildren. “My grandfather would have helped anyone. He trusted her (Pruitt) with his life and it was brutally taken.

“An elderly senior citizen was brutally murdered, and we have to live with that every day of our lives,” he said. "It just isn’t right ... she should be behind bars for the rest of her life.”

During the crime, Pruitt was in another room and did not physically participate in the killing of Elmer Heichel. Authorities said she used her knowledge and friendship with Heichel to get her and another woman invited inside and set him up to be robbed.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling declared sentencing a person under age 18 to life in prison without parole as “cruel and unusual punishment” for juveniles, adding the nature of their limited life experiences make them more prone to making mistakes. Advocates for second chances for juveniles have pointed out that because of the inmates younger ages, they may prove better candidates for rehabilitation.

Pruitt’s case was not challenged by Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper, whose office has indicated she will seek life without parole sentences in 44 of the county’s 49 other juvenile lifer cases. Statewide, officials said 363 cases could be affected by the Supreme Court ruling.

Heichel’s granddaughter, Kimberly Gaynett, had told Anderson last month that Pruitt should not automatically qualify for immediate parole, and suggested she remain in jail as long as possible.

“We were told life and now we have to live this over again,” Gaynett said.

Another granddaughter, Lynda Martin, of Davisburg, wrote Anderson how she never believed Pruitt deserved a life sentence. Martin attended Thursday's hearing and as she left the courtroom said said she was happy Pruitt was “getting her second chance.”

“I never felt she deserved a life sentence,” Martin said. “She has done some great things (in prison). And she has suffered.

“You have to forgive. Otherwise you are going to carry it around with you for your entire life.”

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319

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