Attorney Deborah Labelle, who filed a lawsuit against Michigan in November 2010 on behalf of several prisoners who were sentenced as juveniles, hailed the decision. (Gannett, Susa Tusa/Detroit Free Press)
DETROIT -- She sometimes dreams of idly sitting on the porch of a house, any house.
Or lying on green grass, watching the clouds float by.
"A simple life," she said.
But life has never been simple for Jennifer Pruitt. Her 37 years have been punctuated by turmoil - a tough upbringing, a life sentence for murder, repeated rapes in prison and glimmers of hope that quickly got dashed.
She is one of more than 350 Michigan prisoners sentenced as juveniles to life in prison.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to a lifetime behind bars is cruel and unusual punishment, but the Michigan Court of Appeals said the decision was not retroactive and applies only to new cases.
On Wednesday, a federal judge ruled the high court's decision is indeed retroactive, renewing hope for Pruitt and her fellow juvenile lifers. Judge John Corbett O'Meara said those imprisoned as children for life are eligible for parole, and to not allow it would create "an intolerable miscarriage of justice."
The ruling gives ammunition to hundreds of defense attorneys statewide who are challenging the appeals court decision and are preparing to take their cases to circuit courts.
Pruitt's attorney and longtime advocate - Robyn Frankel - plans to petition the Oakland County Circuit Court, where Pruitt was convicted, to resentence her. A judge there will look at her crime, her record in prison, and decide whether to impose a new sentence - possibly to time served.
Trying to survive
As she waits in the Huron Valley Women's Correctional Facility in Pittsfield Township, Pruitt does the math in her head, every day. Twenty-one years behind bars.
She has few connections with family and has been forgotten by almost everyone since her arrest at age 16. Everyone except Frankel, who has been fighting for her freedom for almost two decades.
Frankel first encountered Pruitt in 1994 while working for the State Appellate Defender Office, which reviews and sometimes appeals convictions for indigent residents. As she read the file, Frankel - the daughter of a surgeon who was raised in an upper-middle-class family - was touched by the story of an impoverished and troubled teen whose life was so different from her own.
"Her life just felt like a tragic and sad example of a system that didn't work," Frankel said. "She was abused as a child, and she spent a lot of time on the streets trying to fend for herself. She was just a kid who had been trying her best to survive."
Pruitt also has some other unlikely allies in her bid for freedom: a prison warden, a civil appellate attorney, the judge who sentenced her and some family members of the victim.
Court records, police reports, sworn testimony and interviews show the odds were stacked against Pruitt from the beginning.
Born into a dysfunctional family in Pontiac, her father drank and abused her, according to court records.
Pruitt, the middle child of three, started running away when she was 10. By the summer of 1992, she was mostly living on the streets of Pontiac - a tall, skinny and awkward kid who drank beer when she could find it and stayed with neighbors or slept outside.
Donnell Miracle, 24, was renting a room in a nearby house where wayward kids hung out. Herself a drug addict, Miracle gave them marijuana and alcohol. And she offered Pruitt shelter.
On Aug. 29, 1992, Miracle was desperate for money. Pruitt told her about Elmer Heichel, 75, a man she had known since she was 6. Heichel kept money in his house, which was nearby, Pruitt told Miracle.
The pair knocked on Heichel's door after midnight, and he let them in. Pruitt went to his bedroom to look for his wallet and then went to the bathroom. When she came out, Miracle was stabbing Heichel with a kitchen knife.
"I walked back in the bathroom and locked the door," she later told police.
The pair left with Heichel's watch and wallet but then returned with a 13-year-old girl who also was staying at the house because Miracle insisted they try to clean up fingerprints.
Later, when Miracle fell asleep, Pruitt ran to a nearby neighbor for help and called police.
She was hysterical and said she had witnessed a murder, the arriving officer reported. Miracle was quickly arrested.
Days later, on Sept. 9, 1992, while under the care of a psychiatrist, Pruitt was arrested and charged as an adult with first-degree felony murder.
Under Michigan law, a person who commits a felony - such as robbery - that ends in death is guilty of murder, even if that person did not carry out the killing.
Pruitt and Miracle went on trial together on July 12, 1993, although they had separate juries.
Prosecutors stressed the brutality of the crime. They pointed out that although Pruitt didn't wield the knife - Miracle had confessed to that - she led Miracle to Heichel's door.
Both were convicted of first-degree murder at the conclusion of the eight-day trial. Miracle, then 25, automatically faced life in prison without parole.
Judge Fred Mester had to decide whether to sentence Pruitt as a juvenile - meaning she would be free at 21 - or as an adult to a life sentence without parole.
He sentenced her as an adult.
"There must be reasonable concern for those consequences of our acts," Mester said in court at the time.
Assaults by guards
Pruitt arrived at the Scott Correctional Facility in November 1993.
Within days, shortly before her 18th birthday, a guard pulled her from her cell and forced her to perform oral sex on him, according to court records.
Another guard began taking her from her cell at night and raping her in a utility closet. Other women were being routinely assaulted all around her, according to court records.
Pruitt said she was depressed and suicidal for years.
"I thought I deserved it," she said. "I didn't think I was worth anything, and that this was how it was going to be. I just felt empty."
In 1996, Ann Arbor civil rights attorney Deborah Labelle and a team of attorneys filed a class action against the Michigan Department of Corrections on behalf of 500 female inmates who said they were being systematically sexually assaulted by prison guards.
Pruitt testified when 10 of the cases, including hers, went to trial. Jurors awarded the women $15.5 million.
In total, juries awarded almost $50 million to 18 women, and the MDOC eventually settled the other cases for $100 million.
"Of all the testimony, those jurors were most moved by Jennifer," Labelle said. "She showed remarkable strength and courage."
Pruitt said her decision to testify - and the fact that jurors believed her - was a turning point in her life.
"For the first time, I felt like somebody listened to me, that I was heard," she said.
In the ensuing years, she became a model prisoner, getting her GED, studying bookkeeping and business management, working as a mentor in prison programs for troubled inmates, sitting with inmates on suicide watch and giving inspirational speeches.
Her supporters say it's time to give Pruitt another chance.
The most vocal is Frankel, who now represents Pruitt for free as a private attorney.
"She was a kid, tossed out in the streets, and she hooked up with somebody she thought would keep her safe. That was her mistake," Frankel said. "Jennifer Pruitt does not belong in prison."
The judge who sentenced her agrees.
"We are a redemptive society," said Mester, who is retired. "Considering her progress, the way she has conducted herself, she deserves to be heard, to give her a chance to participate in our society."
Scott Correctional Warden Heidi Washington heard Pruitt give a speech in 2009 about her life's struggles. She was so moved she sought a commutation on Pruitt's behalf, but the commutation board turned the request down.
Even the some members of the victim's family support setting her free. Although one family member has filed a lawsuit seeking monetary restitution from Pruitt, Heichel's grandson supports her.
Carl Heichel, 52, wrote to Frankel in October, saying family members had discussed the case often and believe she deserves a second chance.
"Jennifer's age, abuse and lack of love and guidance played a major role in this horrific murder," wrote Heichel, who himself is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. "We have and do believe if Jennifer has made strides while in prison.....that reflect a changed life, that she should be given a new start and that she would take full advantage of a life of love and compassion."
Pruitt said she hopes to someday to start a nonprofit for troubled kids.
"I know what it's like," she said. "And I can help. I can help in here or out there, but I can help."
L.L. Brasier, Detroit Free Press