In reference to this article.
OK, here's the big reveal - 20 years ago, I was the foreman of the jury that found Jennifer Pruitt guilty of murder.
I'm now seriously considering adding my name to the list of people who thinks she deserves a chance at parole - a legitimate chance, not the farce offered by the current Michigan system of "Come In, Stay In" for violent crimes.
I do not now, nor have I ever felt that we made the wrong decision. We found her guilty of second-degree murder under Michigan law. She knowingly took part in a felony - armed robbery - that caused a death. That, as of 1993, made her just as guilty of murder as the woman wielding the knife.
Also, there are a couple details that, for obvious reasons, weren't mentioned in the interview with Pruitt's current lawyer. First, there was evidence that, when Elmer Heichel grabbed a knife to try to defend himself, Pruitt struck him, causing him to drop the knife and fall to the floor. That was a major factor in changing the jury from an original vote of 9-3 in favor of manslaughter to 12-0 in favor of second-degree murder. For better or worse, I know that I'm the one who made that change happen by re-arguing the evidence to my fellow jurors.
More importantly, the timeline in the USA Today story is presented as it was presented to our jury. However, Donnell Miracle testified that she and Pruitt robbed Heichel, returned home, realized that he would almost certainly realize who they were when he sobered up, and went back to intimidate him into keeping his mouth shut. According to her account, that's when the attack began. When we learned of this after the trial, every member of the jury that I spoke to said they would have voted for guilty of first-degree murder if they had known about the extra visit. (Miracle was found guilty of first-degree murder after a very short deliberation.)
We had nothing to do with the sentencing, and for all intents and purposes, neither did the judge. He could either sentence her as a child, and since she was 17 at the time of the trial, that would mean almost zero punishment, or he could sentence her as an adult. That, under Michigan law, meant an automatic sentence of life without parole.
I've followed her life for the last 20 years from a distance. She was a major prosecution witness in the sexual-assault lawsuit against prison guards, and for the last few years, she's been a large part of the ACLU's efforts to defeat life-without-parole sentences for minors.
I obviously have no first-hand knowledge of the way she has changed her life - the first and only time that I have spoken to her was when I read the verdict in open court while she screamed and sobbed. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if she was horrified by the idea of me supporting her - given everything that has happened to her in the last 20 years, I suspect that particular moment lives in her worst nightmares.
She was 16 when she took part in the crime, and 17 when she underwent trial. I was 24 during the trial - the youngest jury member by a substantial margin. When I first wrote about this case in 2002, compiling my extensive notes into a trial diary, I wasn't at all sympathetic, but I'm in my mid 40s now, and I've raised a girl through her teenage years. I know that a 16-year-old is nowhere near a full-formed adult, and ours had a family and no substance-abuse problems.
I know we did the right thing in 1993. I would have never been able to stand up in that courtroom and read the verdict had I thought we were wrong. Trust me, it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. One of the other jurors praised me after we were dismissed for reading it in a steady, clear tone like it wasn't a big deal. Another juror instantly said "You weren't standing next to him. He was gripping the railing of the jury box so tightly that I thought his fingers might break."
Now, though, I think the system has done its job. I certainly don't see any chance that she will kill again, and I've heard enough to believe that she would become a useful member of society. Because of her piece of the sexual-assault settlement, she would walk out of prison with the kind of financial stability that is unknown to most people in her position. When she talks about starting a non-profit organization, she has the money to actually make something happen.
Maybe I've gotten soft in my middle age, but I think she's ready for a second chance. I honestly do.
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