Judge wants fresh start for once ‘irredeemable’ girl

Fred M. Mester

More than 20 years ago, I sentenced a teenaged girl to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Jennifer Pruitt was just 15 when she was present — but in another room — when a friend 10 years her senior stabbed a 75-year-old man to death during a robbery. A jury found Jennifer guilty of second-degree murder and, under the state’s sentencing guidelines, I was mandated to sentence her to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In the years since, Jennifer has grown into a remarkable woman, and I think she deserves an opportunity to demonstrate that she is prepared to re-enter society.

The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana should provide that opportunity. Montgomery made retroactive the 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision, which found that it is unconstitutional to impose a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for a crime committed by a person younger than 18. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the 6-3 majority, also said that it is appropriate to sentence children to life without parole only when they may be found to be “permanently incorrigible,” ushering in a major change in our criminal jurisprudence,

In many ways, this is a return to what existed in the past. In the 1950s and 1960s, our sentencing practices were predicated upon the idea that harsh mandatory sentences served no valid purpose. This changed in the 1970s and 1980s, as it became easier for prosecutors to try children as adults, and legislatively approved mandatory sentences and sentencing guidelines took center stage. The early 1990s brought the rise of the “superpredator theory,” which predicted a coming wave of juvenile crime that would terrorize citizens. This crime wave never materialized, the theory has been debunked by its originator, and our juvenile crime rates have dropped to historic lows. But its impact continues.

As a result of these changes, judges lost much of their sentencing discretion. Our opportunity to evaluate each defendant as an individual became significantly limited, as in many instances, the sentencing was set by those who knew little of the actions which preceded each crime, the relevant factors unique to each individual, or their capacity for growth and change. As a result, hundreds and thousands of juveniles were sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment, without the possibility of parole.

Miller began the process of returning us to individual justice and rehabilitation. The court reasoned that children have a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, are more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures, and are unable to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings. The court found that the characters of children are not as well formed as an adult, meaning they are uniquely capable of reform.

Jennifer is proof of this potential for growth and change. She ran away from home the day before her crime in an effort to escape the abuse she was experiencing there. She ended up at her older friend’s home.

The woman told Jennifer she needed money and fast. Jennifer said she knew who had some, so they went to down the street to the home of a 75-year-old man. The woman sent Jennifer into the man’s bedroom to search for his wallet.

When she returned to the living room, Jennifer saw her friend stabbing the old man with a kitchen knife. They later went back to her friend’s house, and when she fell asleep, Jennifer ran out, knocked on the door of a stranger and called police.

Jennifer was tried as an adult on a charge of felony murder. In Michigan, that carried a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Jennifer has now been incarcerated for more than two decades.

At 40, Jennifer is not the same girl she was when she appeared in my courtroom all those years ago. Shortly after she was incarcerated, she was raped by a member of the Michigan Department of Corrections. She became the primary witness in a class-action lawsuit brought against the Michigan Department of Corrections. She later developed confidence in herself; she finished her schooling and began to tutor prisoners in reading and writing. Because of her maturity, prison administrators began to call on her to do suicide watches over her fellow prisoners.

Jennifer was once considered irredeemable. Now I, the same judge who said she would die in prison, believe she deserves an opportunity to demonstrate her change before a proper parole or resentencing entity. She proves that we can never predict who a child will become as an adult and that we are all more than the worst thing that we have ever done.

Fred M. Mester is a retired Oakland County Circuit judge.