[Pnews] Sentenced young: The story of life without parole for juvenile offenders

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Sat Feb 1 13:05:38 EST 2014

  Sentenced young: The story of life without parole for juvenile offenders

by Beth Schwartzapfel 
@schwartzapfel <http://www.twitter.com/schwartzapfel>  February 1, 2014

Nationwide, at least 1,200 people serve life without parole for crimes 
they committed as children. Beth Schwartzapfel on America's juvenile lifers.

    1.A guilt-by-association crime

Jennifer Pruitt can hardly remember a time when she felt safe. She says 
her father beat her until her eyes were blackened. He beat her mother 
and brothers. He drank and crashed their family cars, she says, and then 
he came home and beat them some more. And starting when she was about 
10, Jennifer says, Denny Pruitt would arrange some alone time with her 
in a bedroom. When she told her mother about the abuse, her father 
called Jennifer a bitch and a liar. When she ran away from home, which 
she did increasingly often, the police would tell her she should feel 
lucky she had/ /two parents, and then bring her back home.

The Pruitts lived in a modest bungalow on Cornell Street in Pontiac, a 
struggling Rust Belt Detroit suburb. When Jennifer was about 15 she met 
Donnell Miracle, a drinking buddy of Denny's. Blond and tomboyish at 23 
Donnell had just moved in with a friend on Cornell Street after breaking 
up with her daughter's father. She fit right in with the hard-drinking, 
blue-collar neighborhood men Denny worked with at General Motors. 
Donnell and her toddler daughter lived on Donnell's welfare checks while 
she tried to figure out her next move.

"I don't remember knowing too much about what was going on at her 
house," Donnell recalls of Jennifer. "I just knew she was troubled." 
Donnell says she had herself been molested by multiple men throughout 
her childhood, and perhaps she recognized something in Jennifer that 
made her feel protective. "She was a good girl, and I wanted her to have 
something different," Donnell says.

The older woman would occasionally hire Jennifer to babysit her 
daughter, and soon Jennifer was spending a lot of time at Donnell's 
house. They never talked directly about the abuse, but Jennifer sensed 
that Donnell's house was a safe place to let her guard down. "If I said, 
'I hate my parents,'" Jennifer recalls, "she never said, 'Don't say 
that.' I didn't have to pretend."

And one August day in 1992, with Danny screaming, calling Jennifer a 
slut, she finally broke down and walked over to Donnell's house, 
shaking, crying, wild-eyed. "What's wrong with you?" Donnell asked.

"I f---ing can't stand this s---," Jennifer choked out. "My father's a 
f---ing a--hole. I'm not going back there."

It was a warm, clear day --- blue sky, Midwest sun --- and Jennifer was 
weak-kneed with relief when Donnell answered, "You don't have to."

Jennifer stayed with Donnell and didn't go back home ever again, though 
not for reasons either of them could have imagined at the time.

Almost precisely one year later, Jennifer and Donnell were both 
convicted of homicide --- for Donnell, first-degree murder, and for 
Jennifer, felony murder --- and sentenced to life in prison without the 
possibility of parole. Felony murder is a guilt-by-association 
conviction: If a victim dies while a felony is being committed, all the 
people committing that felony --- whether or not they pulled the 
trigger, had a weapon or were even present at the time of the killing 
--- can be treated as murderers under the law. Both women remain at 
Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility, in Michigan, to this day.

Nationwide, there are at least 1,200 people serving life sentences 
without parole for crimes they committed when they were children. No 
central agency tracks these sentences, so reliable numbers are hard to 
come by. A 2008 Amnesty International/Human Rights Watch (HRW) report 
counted 2,484 such people. A 2009 Heritage Foundation report 
<http://s3.amazonaws.com/thf_media/2009/pdf/sr0065.pdf> took issue with 
their methodology and put the number at a more conservative 1,291. In 
addition, thousands more teenagers have been sentenced to life with the 
possibility of parole (which most experts agree is, in practice, the 
same sentence, given how rarely 
lifers get parole), or to de facto life sentences of 60 years or more 
The United States is the only country in the world where kids are 
sentenced to die in prison.

A common perception is that these kids are "the worst of the worst," and 
indeed, many juveniles sentenced to life have done terrible things. But 
HRW estimates that a quarter of them were, like Jennifer, convicted of 
"aiding and abetting" or of felony murders. Almost 60 percent had no 
prior criminal convictions. More than 70 juveniles were just 13 or 14 
years old at the time of their crime --- some so small when they arrived 
in prison that all the uniforms were too big for them. Anecdotally, 
many, like Jennifer, had been subjected to abuse and neglect, their 
childhoods marred by instability, poverty and violent or criminal 
behavior by the adults in their life.

"Almost all of these kids have been failed in a deep, deep way," says 
Deborah LaBelle, an Ann Arbor attorney who last year won a landmark 
on behalf of Jennifer and other juvenile lifers in Michigan. "We should 
have shame for our failure to protect (them)."

Ruling in LaBelle's lawsuit, Hill v. Snyder 
<http://www.freep.com/assets/freep/pdf/C4200020130.PDF>, a federal judge 
eliminated life without parole for juveniles already serving those 
sentences in Michigan; he wrote that juvenile lifers must be "fairly 
considered for parole." LaBelle has filed briefs and counter-briefs 
about what a fair chance at parole might look like. Hill v. Snyder 
brought Michigan into compliance with the Supreme Court's most recent 
ruling on the subject: In 2012, the court ruled in Miller v. Alabama 
<http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/10-9646g2i8.pdf> that 
mandatory life without parole is unconstitutional for juveniles. Whereas 
a handful of states --- including most recently Massachusetts 
--- bar juvenile life without parole entirely, the Supreme Court only 
eliminated the sentence in cases where the sentence is mandatory. Thus 
in most states, it is still legal to sentence a child to life without 
parole, as long as the judge has discretion to do otherwise.

In Michigan, Jennifer Pruitt and the state's more than 350 other 
juvenile lifers can, if they let themselves hope, imagine a time they 
might one day be free. They wait for an appeals court to issue a 
decision on whether and how they will each get their shot at parole.

    2.Juvenile super-predators?

Elmer Heichel was an elderly neighbor of Jennifer's who would 
occasionally hire her to rake his leaves or run his errands. Jennifer 
knew that on Saturday nights Heichel and his buddies would go to the bar 
and come home intoxicated. So Donnell and Jennifer hatched a plan to go 
to his house and rob him; Donnell would distract him in conversation 
while Jennifer went inside, ostensibly to use the bathroom. Instead, she 
would take whatever cash she could find in the bedroom, and the two 
women would leave. Jennifer figured Heichel would be so drunk that he 
wouldn't even remember the interaction in the morning. "I thought it was 
so simple," Jennifer says. "It couldn't go wrong."

And at first, it didn't. After taking the cash from Heichel's wallet, 
Jennifer snuck back into the bathroom to complete the charade --- flush 
the toilet, run the faucet. But she came out to discover Heichel lying 
on the living room floor while Donnell stabbed the old man again and 
again. He looked at Jennifer, asked her for help. "Jennifer," he said, 
"I've known you for a long time." She panicked, froze, went back into 
the bathroom to throw water on her face.

Jennifer was just a few days shy of her 18th birthday when she stood 
before the Honorable Judge Fred Mester as he weighed his options: 
sentence her as a juvenile, which would have required the state to 
release her in three years, on her 21st birthday, or sentence her as an 
adult, which, under mandatory sentencing laws, meant life without parole.

When she committed her crime, Jennifer Pruitt was 16: too young, under 
Michigan law, to be declared independent from her parents, to serve on a 
jury, to drive a car without restrictions --- even to attend an R-rated 
movie alone. And yet, on November 15, 1993, Judge Mester sentenced 
Jennifer to grow up, grow old and die in prison.

In the early '90s, the nation was experiencing a steep increase in 
violent crime, and this trend was nowhere more troubling than among 
adolescents: Between the mid-'80s and the mid-'90s, the number of 
homicides committed by teenagers with guns climbed steadily each year, 
peaking in 1993 at more than 3,000 
<http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/htus00.pdf> --- roughly three times 
what the yearly rate had been from the mid-'70s to the 
mid-'80s. High-profile crimes, like the Central Park jogger case in 1989 
lent urgency to the sentiment that something had to be done with these 
kids, and soon.

The country's anxiety crystallized with the publication of the 1996 book 
"Body Count," in which political scientist John DiIulio warned of a 
"demographic crime bomb": "America is now home to thickening ranks of 
juvenile 'super-predators,'" he wrote, "radically impulsive, brutally 
remorseless youngsters, including ever more pre-teenage boys, who 
murder, assault, rape, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join 
gun-toting gangs, and create serious communal disorders. They do not 
fear the stigma of arrest, the pains of imprisonment, or the pangs of 

As it turns out, teenage gun homicides dropped steadily between the 
1993 peak and 2000 and have leveled off since then. DiIulio's book was 
almost immediately discredited by criminologists, and DiIulio himself 
has since recanted 
<http://www.nytimes.com/2001/02/09/us/as-ex-theorist-on-young-superpredators-bush-aide-has-regrets.html?pagewanted=print&src=pm>. But 
state legislatures had already raced to pass laws targeting these 
remorseless and irredeemable young criminals.

Until the early '90s, most children accused of a crime were handled by 
the juvenile justice system; to try or sentence children as adults, most 
states required a hearing in which a judge took into consideration their 
age and their capacity for rehabilitation 
<http://www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/sp/juvenile.pdf>. Today, all 50 
states, plus Washington, D.C., and the federal government, allow kids 
under age 18 to be tried as adults, sometimes automatically given 
certain crimes, or by the decision of the prosecutor alone. As of 2005, 
in a majority of states, the minimum age is 13; several states set no 
minimum age at all.

But these laws fly in the face of what we know about kids. "When you're 
an adult, you can get a job, you can drive a car, you can leave your 
environment. You can make certain choices," says LaBelle. "A child 
cannot just walk away. Can't get in a car and say, 'This neighborhood 
sucks. I'm going to go and get a job somewhere else.'" * *

Elizabeth Cauffman, a leading researcher on the relationship between 
adolescent development and juvenile justice policy, says, "Adolescents 
and adults are cognitively equivalent --- adolescents are as smart as 
adults --- at about the age of 16. What's different is the ... emotional 
regulation. That ability to control, that ability to plan. That part 
continues to develop well up into the 20s and beyond."

Using sophisticated imaging technology, psychologists and brain 
scientists now have a better sense of the physiological reasons this is 
so. They relate primarily to two regions of the brain: the primitive 
limbic area, which is the seat of our emotions, and the frontal lobe or 
prefrontal cortex, underdeveloped in adolescents, which "allows us to 
act on the basis of reason," Daniel Weinberger, director of the Clinical 
Brain Disorders Laboratory at the National Institutes of Health, wrote 
in a New York Times op-ed.

Beginning around puberty, says Thomas Grisso of the University of 
Massachusetts Medical School, "in the brain studies, they see a higher 
level of activation in (the limbic) area, and greater responsiveness to 
external stimulation, to rewards, to things that might excite one." The 
overactive limbic system and the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex make 
for a potentially dangerous combination in adolescents: The limbic area, 
explains Grisso, "says, 'That would be fun!'" In a healthy adult, "the 
frontal lobe says, 'Wait, will there be consequences for that?'" But in 
teenagers, "There's this surge in responsiveness to stimulation before 
the frontal lobe has developed the ability to inhibit that most 
efficiently," he says.

Thus, the "15-year-old brain does not have the biological machinery to 
inhibit impulses in the service of long-range planning," Weinberger 
wrote. "This is why it is important for adults to help children make 
plans and set rules."

    3.To take the plea?

Of course, whether there is a direct line from the teenage brain to 
teenage crime is a matter of debate. Stephen Morse, a University of 
Pennsylvania law professor, has coined the term "brain overclaim 
syndrome" to describe the way that "brains are blamed for offenses," as 
he writes, while "agency and responsibility disappear from the legal 

Opponents of juvenile life without parole point out that the same 
limitations that make children less culpable for their criminal actions 
also apply to their experience in the courtroom. "Many young adolescents 
... are not developmentally and intellectually mature enough to be 
legally 'competent' to stand trial," Human Rights Watch and Amnesty 
International wrote in their joint 2005 report. The report points out 
children's unique vulnerability to making false confessions, not 
recognizing bad advice from their defense attorneys and not 
understanding what is at stake during their trials.

In cases of juvenile life, it's not uncommon for older co-defendants, 
more mature and savvy to the criminal justice system, to take a plea 
deal --- sometimes in exchange for testimony against the others --- 
while the juvenile, naive and often the least culpable, ends up with the 
harshest sentence.

So when a judge asks a 17-year-old, as Keith Maxey from Detroit was 
asked in September 2008, "Do you understand that you have a significant 
downside risk" to turning down a plea deal, or when the judge says, "You 
need to be aware (that) if you go to trial and ... they find (you) 
guilty there's a very real likelihood that you may not be walking 
anywhere any time soon as a free man," it's fair to ask whether that 
teenager can honestly say he does/ /understand.

Keith Maxey was charged with felony murder after 20-year-old Brian 
McClendon was killed on Christmas Eve 2007 in a drug deal gone bad. No 
one disputed that Keith was unarmed, did not shoot McClendon and in fact 
was himself shot and grievously injured in the melee. (Keith maintains 
that he didn't even know his friends were planning to rob the dealers.)

Keith's friend Tyrell Adams --- who planned the robbery --- pled guilty 
to a reduced charge of second-degree murder and will serve 23 to 40 
years. He was 20 at the time. Twenty-four-year-old Antoine Bailey, who 
prosecutors say fired the fatal shots, was convicted of assault with 
intent to commit murder and sentenced to at least 14 years.

In the run-up to trial, the prosecutor offered Keith two increasingly 
more lenient plea deals; Keith turned down the first, and when he was 
considering the second --- pleading guilty to second-degree murder, with 
a 10- to 20-year sentence --- Keith turned his head to look at his 
family, seated behind him in the courtroom.

"You can look at me, not them," the judge snapped. "I don't even know 
who those folks are."

Keith paused. "Can I look by at my mother?" he asked.

His mother can barely talk through the tears as she remembers the few 
moments the judge allowed her with Keith. "I said, 'Keith, I think we 
should take the plea deal.'

"He said, 'Mama, but I didn't do nothing. If I take a plea deal it will 
always be on me that I was guilty of something that I didn't do.'"

One month later, convicted of felony murder, Keith was sentenced to life 
without parole.

Even the most ardent opponents of juvenile life without parole will 
readily admit that some people --- including the rare child --- are 
truly depraved, too broken or dangerous to safely return home. Charles 
Manson has come up for parole 12 times, says Jody Kent Lavy, director of 
the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. "He's never going to get 
paroled. Nobody wants violent people on the streets, whether they are 
kids or adults."

But the vast majority of kids, given their brain plasticity and 
increasing maturity, are better equipped to change than adults are.

For seven years, a large Department of Justice study 
<https://ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/230971.pdf> followed 1,300 people who 
committed serious crimes as teenagers. More than 90 percent of them 
"greatly reduce their offending over time, regardless of the 
intervention," according to a summary of the research; whether they were 
sent to adult prison or the juvenile system, incarcerated for a long 
time or a short time, did not matter. What mattered, it seems, was that 
they got older.

"These are the kids everybody's afraid of," says Elizabeth Cauffman, the 
researcher on adolescent development --- those who assault, rob, and 
kill. "Over time, they just stop offending. We call it the 'age-crime 
curve.' It's shown time and again: Crime peaks at 18 or 19 years of age 
and begins to decline. Around 26, it really drops off."

That's why many advocates call for giving these kids a meaningful chance 
at parole, beginning sometime in their 20s. "A 15-, 16-, 17-year-old, we 
can't tell at that age what they're going to be like decades later," 
says Lavy. "So we have to have the opportunity to check in on them later 
in life." That's not to say they will get parole, necessarily. But 
knowing that they could, advocates say, gives them an incentive to learn 
from their mistakes.

    4.Jennifer and Donnell

Jennifer Pruitt is 37 now, with clear blue eyes and rhinestone 
tortoiseshell glasses. She has been in prison for 20 years, more than 
half her life. She has poise and insight that, it's obvious from her 
carriage and her affect, are still new to her. Lifers are last on the 
list for prison programming, so it took her more than a decade to get 
into the critical thinking, assaultive offenders therapy and conflict 
resolution classes that she says have changed her life and her outlook.

I visited Jennifer and Donnell, now 44, on an unseasonably cold October 
day in Ypsilanti, a small city southeast of Ann Arbor in Michigan. As 
they are incarcerated in the same facility, "I will speak to her in 
passing on some occasions," Jennifer wrote me in advance of my visit, 
"however there is not a dialogue between us, so I have no idea where she 
stands." Waiting for me in the visitation room, they had their first 
real conversation since Elmer Heichel's murder. That morning they 
decided they would finally see a therapist together.

On the day we met, Donnell's blue-green eyes were framed with pink eye 
shadow; her brown hair was pulled back in a half-ponytail. She has an 
open, friendly face. Her daughter is 22 now, with two children of her 
own; raised by her stepmother, Donnell's daughter didn't even know 
Donnell existed until she was 13. They reunited four years ago.

Two decades on, Donnell still can't really explain what made her propose 
a robbery. She was tired of being broke, but this was nothing new; she 
was always broke, and she'd never stolen anything before. In the 
visitation room, she asked Jennifer, "Was I joking?"

By that time, Jennifer had been at Donnell's for five days. They didn't 
want anyone --- even Donnell's roommate --- to know that Jennifer was 
there, so Jennifer hid during the day in her friend's closet. She barely 
ate. Donnell "was on welfare," Jennifer says, "and I was already asking 
so much of her." She just sat in the dark by herself, hungry, drinking 
cheap beer, waiting until everyone was asleep each night so she could 
come out again.

Jennifer was worried about becoming a burden to Donnell. So when the 
older woman said, "We should rob somebody. I'm tired of being broke," 
Jennifer saw it as an opportunity to pay Donnell back for her kindness.

Donnell says that there in Elmer's living room, the old man had tried to 
touch her breasts, and that given her childhood history, his hands on 
her made her snap. His family has disputed this, and Donnell 
acknowledges that it doesn't excuse what she did. Her eyes brim with 
tears as she talks; she fidgets, fanning herself with the blue shirt of 
her prison uniform. "Me being responsible for someone's death --- the 
only way I can describe it is like a lesion on my soul that will never 
go away." She dabs her eyes with toilet paper, takes several deep 
breaths. "I really hope this helps Jennifer," she says quietly.

Jennifer talks about all the things she could have done differently. She 
could have dismissed Donnell's suggestion to rob someone. She could have 
helped Elmer when he called to her. Instead, she followed Donnell's 
instructions to go into the bedroom and mess things up so it would look 
like a random robbery. She counted the cash --- $93 --- and handed it 
over. She came back with Donnell later that night to wipe off their 

And then, after Donnell had gone to sleep that night, Jennifer ran 
hysterically to a neighbor's house and contacted the police.  She was so 
distraught by what she had done that, diagnosed with acute 
post-traumatic stress disorder, she was hospitalized on a child 
psychiatric unit. After five months, psychiatrists deemed her competent 
to stand trial.

    5.Focus on victims

A case like Jennifer's gives a skewed sense of the issue, says Scott 
Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys 
Association. "The defense bar and Amnesty International and various 
groups across the country always talk about the juvenile. And they call 
them 'the child.' People throw out the frontal lobe, and that they're 
young children, and they call them Joey and Billy and Susie." (Indeed, 
in one of Jennifer's legal briefs, her attorney refers to her as "Jenny" 
throughout, although only close friends call her that.) He accuses the 
ACLU and others who bring lawsuits on behalf of juvenile lifers of 
cherry-picking non-shooters and other sympathetic plaintiffs, as opposed 
to those like David Biro, a 16-year-old high school honor student who in 
1990 broke into the home of Richard and Nancy Bishop Langert, a young 
Winnetka, Ill., couple expecting their first baby, and shot them 
execution-style. "He wanted to be the ultimate assassin," said a friend 

"Prosecutors, while we certainly have feelings and empathy and care 
about criminal defendants," says Burns, "our primary focus is and has 
been and will be on victims and families and how it impacts them." In 
answer to critics who say that lifers deserve at least a chance at 
parole, Burns talks about the impact of these parole hearings on the 
surviving relatives of victims. Parole hearings, he says, take a deep 
financial and emotional toll on victims' surviving family members, who 
often travel hundreds of miles to be there and must face their loved 
ones' killers again and again, every two or three or five years.

Indeed, this has recently become a scary possibility for Nancy's 
Langert's sister, Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins.

One of the founders of National Organization of Victims of Juvenile 
Lifers, Bishop-Jenkins readily admits that juvenile life without parole 
is at times inappropriate --- in many felony murder cases, she says, 
"those folks should definitely be resentenced" --- but she argues these 
cases are rare and can be addressed individually with appeals and other 
legal mechanisms already in place. "If you have weeds in your front 
lawn, you go in and you pull them," she says. "But you don't get a 
bulldozer and dig up the whole yard."

The young man who killed Nancy and Richard "represents one of the 'worst 
of the worst,'" Bishop-Jenkins says. When the couple begged him to spare 
the life of their child, he instead took aim and shot Nancy directly in 
the stomach. "There are people here in Illinois who work against 
juvenile life without parole who have told me with one voice, 'This guy 
will never get out,'" says Bishop-Jenkins. "He's a serial killer and a 
psychopath and unrepentant."

So when a 2006 bill began circulating in the Illinois legislature that 
would have allowed parole hearings for lifers who were sentenced as 
juveniles, Bishop-Jenkins says she was "traumatized." "It is a 
monumentally unfair thing to do to tell a family that a guy is serving 
life and then change that," she says.

Still, even Bishop-Jenkins' own family is split on the issue. Her 
surviving sister, Jeanne Bishop, says her faith led her to forgive Biro, 
and last year she began visiting him in prison. It seems to her he is 
making halting progress toward remorse and responsibility for his 
actions. Twenty-five years on, Jeanne doesn't think Biro is ready to be 
released, but she doesn't forswear the possibility that one day he might 
be. "This is a merciless sentence," she told The Chicago Tribune 
"It says no matter how redeemed you are, no matter how sorry or 
rehabilitated, we are never going to let you out." The two sisters 
testified on opposite sides of a recent parole bill, drafted in response 
to Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruling on juvenile life; 
Jeanne's very public change of heart has put a strain on their relationship.

"Victims alone understand how serious this is," says Bishop-Jenkins. 
"What it does to your life to never have an end, a legal finality to the 
case involving your loved one's murder. Constantly having to go back to 
contend with the offender."

    6.A second chance

As Deborah LaBelle was preparing to file Hill v. Snyder, the Michigan 
case about juvenile life, she met an inmate whose name sounded familiar. 
"When she found out who I was, that I was kin to Elmer Heichel, she 
asked me about it," says Carl Heichel, 53, grandson of the man Donnell 
killed. "I told Deb LaBelle that me and my mother and father had talked 
about this years ago, and we agree. My grandfather would want her to 
have a chance," Carl says of Jennifer. "I believe that wholeheartedly."

I talked to Carl on the phone from Thumb Correctional Facility in 
Lapeer, Mich., where he, too, is serving a life sentence for stabbing a 
man to death. A friend pulled a knife on him while they were smoking 
crack together, and things got ugly. You might think this would ruin his 
credibility: a killer serving a life sentence saying killers should not 
get life sentences.

But Carl surprised me. "I don't believe that I should get a second 
chance," he said. "I've had a chance. I failed miserably. I let drugs 
run my life." But, he continues, "(Jennifer) can still go out there and 
have a nice life, and do some good for other people. Incarcerating 
certain people for the rest of their life makes no sense."

When the Supreme Court agreed, in Miller v. Alabama, it was the latest 
in a line of Supreme Court cases that hold that children are different 
than adults, and must be treated as such under the law. In 1988, the 
court ruled it unconstitutional 
<http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1987/1987_86_6169> to sentence 
someone to death for a crime he committed when he was younger than 16./ 
/In 2005, the court raised the age to 18 
<http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2004/2004_03_633>. Five years 
later, the court ruled 
<http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-7412.pdf> that life 
without parole for a non-homicide crime was unconstitutional for children.

We humans do a lot of stupid and bad things. And the one thing that 
helps us move on is the sense that there is an atoning for the crime. 
And forgiveness from the victim --- that creates a better civilization.

State legislatures must now amend their sentencing laws to comply with 
Miller, and state courts are scrambling to determine how to apply it to 
their populations of juvenile lifers. Does Miller apply retroactively to 
sentences handed down before the Supreme Court's ruling? If so, should 
each person be entitled to his own individual resentencing? Should 
states make a blanket change, commuting all juvenile lifers' mandatory 
sentences to life with the possibility of parole? These questions will 
get answered, piecemeal, in the coming years, as prosecutors, defense 
attorneys, legislatures and individual inmates battle them out state by 

Going forward, some states are experimenting with alternate sentencing 
options such as a "blended sentence," which allows a judge to sentence a 
child to the juvenile system and suspend the "adult" portion of his 
sentence until he's 21. At that point the judge can see what progress 
the child has made and decide what portion, if any, of the remainder of 
his sentence he must serve in adult prison.

Judge Mester didn't have that option more than 20 years ago when he 
sentenced Jennifer Pruitt. From his two available options, he chose the 
adult sentence, mandatory life without parole, over the juvenile one, 
three years. But he now looks at who Jennifer has become and wishes he 
had made a different choice.

"I think the Jennifer Pruitt case, more than any of the other felony 
murders I'd had previously, brought home to me that this is not the way 
our justice system should operate," he says. Mester's voice caught with 
emotion when I told him that Carl Heichel had forgiven Jennifer and 
asked for her to have a second chance. "Will you thank him for me?" 
Mester asked. "We humans do a lot of stupid and bad things. And the one 
thing that helps us move on is the sense that there is an atoning for 
the crime. And forgiveness from the victim --- that creates a better 

Now retired, Mester says he no longer feels comfortable with treating 
felony murder and first-degree murder the same for sentencing purposes, 
and he feels that everyone --- even those who committed the most heinous 
of crimes --- deserves a chance at parole.

Jennifer Pruitt was 27 before it really hit her what a life sentence 
meant. At first, she says, "I was actually kind of relieved to come to 
prison. That's how bad it was at my house." When her lawyer pressed her, 
"I kept saying, 'I get it, I get it,'" she says, "but I don't think I 
completely wrapped my whole mind around it." When she finally did, she 
vacillated between anger, guilt and shame for what happened.

"Jennifer's life in prison can be broken down into several components," 
her lawyer wrote in a recent motion requesting she be considered for 
parole. "The first is the ugly component." The second, she continued, 
"is a model of strength, courage, and recovery." Upon coming to prison, 
Jennifer suffered years of sexual assault by correctional officers. 
Distraught and afraid, she says, she would lie awake nights and sleep 
all day.

Still, she gained the strength and courage to testify in 2008 as part of 
a class-action suit about the abuse. This in turn strengthened her 
confidence and helped her find her voice (more than 500 women were 
ultimately awarded $100 million for the systematic abuse, though none of 
the officers ever faced criminal charges 
<http://www.freep.com/article/20090716/NEWS06/101250006>). She has 
completed more than a dozen mental health programs, obtained her GED and 
several vocational certifications, and worked full time in the laundry 
and the kitchen. She serves as a peer mediator in a conflict resolution 
program that manages disputes among inmates. She mentors juvenile 
offenders, tries to make them feel understood even as she points out 
their errors in judgment. "I wanted so bad to be validated," she says. 
"That's what created all this chaos. People think kids want to be right 
--- they just want to be validated. There's a difference."

Over the years, Jennifer says, she has come to forgive her father --- as 
much for herself as for him. "I realized that I was taking away from who 
I am as a person by holding onto the resentments that I had," she says.

Jennifer moved into a special substance-abuse unit as a patient in 2010, 
but continues to live there now as a mentor and peer counselor. At her 
graduation from that program, she said, "Today I am freer than I have 
ever been because I am free on the inside."

Still, having shared a 10'x12' cell with two other people for 20 years, 
Jennifer dreams of space: When she lets herself imagine a life outside 
prison, it's in a town with "a lot of fields, a lot of land," she says 
--- perhaps with a house of her own, a horse, a goat, a car. She'd like 
to work with kids; apropos of her recent work, "maybe training people to 
listen." But whatever she does, Jennifer says, she wants to "fade off. 
Be in the background." She looks forward to a day when she can "go where 
I'm not recognized. I'm known as a juvenile lifer. I'm known as that 
girl from the lawsuit. I want to be looked at and judged for who I am now."

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://freedomarchives.org/pipermail/ppnews_freedomarchives.org/attachments/20140201/981bc93a/attachment.html>

More information about the PPnews mailing list