How A Woman Serving Life In Prison Made The Judge Who Sentenced Her Proud
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We're going to hear now about a woman who, for the first time in nearly 25 years, has a hope of living outside prison. Jennifer Pruitt was convicted back in 1993 for a role she played in a murder when she was 16. She was sentenced as an adult and given mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole. But a few years ago, in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to give that sentence to people for crimes committed while they were juveniles. Earlier this year, the court ordered states to review the cases of as many as 2,500 people nationwide, and Pruitt is one of them. We're going to spend the next six minutes learning about her and her connection to the judge who sentenced her. Reporter Danielle Wolffe has the story. And a warning - some of it may be disturbing.
DANIELLE WOLFFE, BYLINE: Today, Jennifer Pruitt is a confident 40-year-old woman. She wears her graying auburn hair pulled back in a simple ponytail, revealing three star-shaped tattoos on her neck. She is currently incarcerated at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility, which stands among cornfields on the outskirts of Ypsilanti, Mich.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through computer-generated voice) Prepaid debit call from Jennifer.
WOLFFE: I visited with her there, but they don't allow recording devices in the prison using. I was only allowed to record her by phone.
JENNIFER PRUITT: Hello?
PRUITT: See, I just called...
WOLFFE: For the first time since she was incarcerated, she has real hope for release.
PRUITT: I feel happy because the possibility of me dying here now is very, very slim, where before it was, like, very, very high.
WOLFFE: It's tough for Pruitt to think back on the actions that led her to prison. When she was 16 years old, she ran away from home and her abusive father. She was staying at her neighbor's house, 24-year-old Donnell Miracle. Court records say that when Miracle wanted money, Pruitt suggested they rob an elderly man.
They went to his house, stealing cash and some jewelry. Pruitt came out of a back room to find Miracle stabbing the man with a kitchen knife. After Miracle fell asleep, Pruitt reported the murder to police. She was convicted for her part in the crime and sentenced as an adult to life without the possibility of parole.
PRUITT: It took me a long time to kind of grasp the fact that, you know, somebody was dead. Somebody that trusted me was violated by me.
WOLFFE: Pruitt says prison life had some disturbing similarities to her life at home. There, her father had abused her. Here, it was the guards. According to court records, she was raped and repeatedly sexually harassed by prison guards.
PRUITT: He would pat me down, but he didn't just pat me down. He would pay attention to certain parts of my body. That was letting me know he can do what he wants to do when he wants to do it.
WOLFFE: She struggled with depression and attempted suicide. And after nearly a decade in prison, it began to dawn on her what a life without parole sentence really meant. She was never getting out. One day, she was staring out the window of her cell.
PRUITT: I could actually see people getting out of their cars, pumping gas. And I remember thinking that this is my life. And I remember thinking, how am I going to do this?
WOLFFE: Something shifted. Though she never expected to get out, she decided to turn her life around.
PRUITT: I think it was God. Somebody higher-power kind of pushed me.
WOLFFE: She became a model prisoner, earning her GED. She completed every rehabilitation course available to her and college courses. She also took control of her life by standing up with other women, filing a class-action lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections for failing to protect them against sexual abuse and rape. The state agreed to pay them $100 million. Still, she had been sentenced to spend the rest of her life in prison.
FRED MESTER: I think I told her, you'll never see the light of day.
WOLFFE: That's retired judge Fred Mester. He sentenced Pruitt to life in prison in 1993.
MESTER: That's a pretty dramatic statement to make to young 16-year-old who really did not intend any murder to occur that night, but just happened to have been part of a felony where murder was committed. So that kind of bothered me over the years.
WOLFFE: Today, Mester is a tall, grandfatherly man with receding white hair and laugh lines. It's painful for him to remember what it was like back then, when violent crime rates were high and judges were encouraged towards giving harsh juvenile sentences.
MESTER: We all wanted to get tough on crime. And I believed that I was caught up in it just as much as anybody else, you know? You do the crime, you do the time.
WOLFFE: Now Mester's views have changed. He's fighting for juvenile sentencing reform, citing research that young people's brains are still developing and that they're less able to understand the consequences of their actions. He thinks Pruitt is a prime candidate for release.
MESTER: This is an individual that the Supreme Court was talking about. They grow out of their juvenile system. They become mature. They become valuable ingredients in a civilized society.
WOLFFE: Mester thought about Pruittt frequently over the years, and in March he went to visit her. It was the first time since he became a judge three decades ago that he'd ever requested to visit a prisoner.
MESTER: Now, I think this must have been where she...
WOLFFE: To prepare, he asked Pruitt's lawyer for some photos of her. He sits with me and leafs through some of them - her prison mugshot, a photo of her in a cap and gown and a recent photo of Pruitt with her grandmother.
MESTER: Oh, that's an amazing picture.
WOLFFE: They're sitting in a prison visiting room.
MESTER: They both have smiles on their face and a grandmother who's very proud of that girl, Jennifer.
WOLFFE: Why does that emotion - why does that touch you so much?
MESTER: I'm not sure. I can't express it, other than the fact that - that we don't give up on anyone in our lives.
PRUITT: The fact that he knew so much about me, it showed that he cared.
WOLFFE: Mester's visit also affected Pruitt.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through computer-generated voice) You have one minute remaining.
PRUITT: It does feel good to have someone say, I am proud of you. We don't get it that much.
WOLFFE: Soon, she may get much more than that - a chance to live outside of prison for the first time since she was a teenager. Her lawyer thinks her chances are good. Michigan's prosecutors have already decided not to seek a new life sentence for Jennifer Pruitt. She'll find out how much longer she'll be in prison when she gets a new sentencing hearing within the next few months. For NPR News, I'm Danielle Wolffe.
SIEGEL: Radio producer Angela Denning contributed to that report.
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