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The judge and the inmate

More than 20 years after Jennifer Pruitt was ordered to spend the rest of her life behind bars, she sat down in a Michigan prison with the judge who sent her there.

Pruitt was 17 when Fred Mester sentenced her in 1993 for her role in a plot to rob Elmer Heichel, 75, her neighbor, Elmer Heichel, whom Pruitt’s accomplice fatally stabbed.

Judge Fred Mester in Waterford, Mich, 2010.

CHARLES V. TINES/DETROIT NEWS VIA AP

Now retired, Mester visited Pruitt last year as she awaited a new sentencing hearing and says he found “a new person.” Believing she deserved freedom, he wrote letters to a prosecutor and Pruitt’s new sentencing judge, saying her “willingness to take responsibility for her actions should certainly warrant a re-examination of her sentence.”

During their meeting, Pruitt told Mester how she had changed in prison, serving as a mediator and a mentor for inmates. “It was an opportunity to be able to finally tell him that I was sorry, to be able to demonstrate what I couldn’t twentysomething years earlier,” Pruitt, now 41, said in an interview.

Her progress followed a tumultuous decade behind bars. Pruitt was a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit over allegations that more than 100 women were raped and sexually abused by prison guards and staff. The case resulted in a $100 million settlement with the state Department of Corrections.

Jennifer Pruitt celebrates her graduation from a career tech class at the Robert Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth, Mich, 2017.

MICHIGAN DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS/ROBYN FRANKEL VIA AP

At her February resentencing hearing, Pruitt apologized to her victim’s family, wanting to assure them she “understood the pain that they had suffered _ even today.” One of Heichel’s granddaughters urged the judge to impose the maximum punishment; two other grandchildren and one of their sons wrote letters supporting Pruitt’s release.

A month later, Pruitt was resentenced to 30 to 60 years, making her eligible for parole in 2022. She says the guilt she feels never goes away, but she wishes those who believe she should never go free could judge her not just by the mistake she made but “for where I’m at today.”

More in Locked Up for Life

Graham v. Florida

The decision prohibited life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in cases that did not involve murder.

About LOCKED UP FOR LIFE

Decades ago in the tough-on-crime ‘80s and ‘90s, many states — stoked by fears of teen “superpredators” — enacted laws to punish juvenile criminals like adults. The U.S. became an international outlier, sentencing offenders under 18 to live out their lives in prison for homicide and, sometimes, rape, kidnapping, armed robbery.

There has since been a shift. Five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life without parole for juveniles in murder cases. Then last year, the court went further, saying the more than 2,000 already serving such sentences must get an opportunity chance to show their crimes did not reflect “irreparable corruption” and, if not, have some hope for freedom.

The January 2016 ruling set the stage for an unprecedented second look at hundreds and hundreds of cases, some many decades old now, in courtrooms across America. The Associated Press leveraged its reporting power in all 50 states to examine how judges and prosecutors, lawmakers and parole boards are now revisiting juvenile lifer cases. Many have been resentenced and released, with more hearings continuing in the days, weeks and months ahead. But in some states, officials have delayed review of cases or fought to keep the vast majority of their affected inmates locked up for life.

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