DANVILLE — When 17-year-old Brian Pruitt entered a maximum-security prison in August 1996, he had no hope of ever leaving.
The Danville teen had just been sentenced to mandatory life in prison without parole for the Oct. 17, 1995, fatal stabbing of his grandparents, Frank "Pat" and Roberta McNeely, in the small brick home they shared with him.
Now 39, Pruitt is hoping to receive a new sentence — one that would give him the possibility of, one day, gaining his freedom.
He, and the other roughly 1,300 "juvenile lifers" throughout the nation, are entitled to resentencing hearings under landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings — Miller v. Alabama in 2012, which declared mandatory life without parole for minors unconstitutional, and Montgomery v. Louisiana in 2016, which made the previous decision retroactive to all cases prior to 2012.
In 2014, the Illinois Supreme Court had already lined the state up with Miller in its People v. Addolfo Davis decision.
"In Miller, the court is saying mandatory life without parole for offenders under 18 violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment," said Leon Parker, Pruitt's court-appointed attorney.
Parker noted it was one of several high court decisions that outlawed or limited the harshest punishments for juveniles based on the theory they're less morally culpable and have a greater chance for reformation. A 2005 decision took the death penalty off the table, and a 2010 ruling banned a life without parole sentence for crimes that didn't involve homicide.
"That was all based in the very solid brain science, along with common sense, that adolescents are not fully-formed adults, and we generally do not treat them that way," said Joshua Rovner, a senior advocacy associate with The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank working to reform sentencing policy and address racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
"In light of those cases, the judges are supposed to look at these individuals with a youth-centered lens," said Shobha Mahadev, project director of the Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth and assistant clinical professor of law at Northwestern University. "They have to look at what the court says are these hallmark attributes of youth — they're impulsive, they're more subject to peer pressure, their inability to see long-term consequences — and their family and home life, and then look at the individual in that context to really understand who this person is ... and whether he or she has changed as an adult."
When the court was deciding Montgomery, more than 2,600 inmates were serving juvenile life without parole, or JLWOP, a sentence only imposed in the U.S., according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, also in Washington, D.C. Since the decision, seven states and the District of Columbia have banned JLWOP, and the number of juvenile lifers has been cut in half both through resentencing hearings and state legislative reform.
"That number has been halved not because half of the individuals have been released," spokeswoman Karmah Elmusa said. While more than 250 are now free, "many have just been resentenced and are still incarcerated, though they are no longer serving JLWOP."
In Illinois, there were about 100 juvenile lifers at the time of Miller, Mahadev said.
"About 80 percent were mandatory juvenile lifers," she said, adding the other 20 received discretionary life-without-parole sentences. "Of those cases, a little more than 50 across the state — the vast majority being in Cook County — have gone through the process of having another hearing and were resentenced."
She said a small number have been released, including a few with innocence claims.
Pruitt, who's locked up at Menard Correctional Center, filed a petition for post-conviction relief in 2013, and Parker filed an amended petition in 2016. While there hasn't been much movement since then, Parker said Pruitt's resentencing hearing could happen this summer.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
The McNeelys double-homicide and their grandson's arrest and trial captured so much attention that then-Circuit Judge Thomas Fahey moved the trial to Peoria because of pretrial publicity.
Pat, 58, was a retired Bismarck-Henning High School social studies teacher, who continued to substitute teach at the school and teach at Danville Area Community College. Roberta, 57, was a retired nurse's aide at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System.
Known as a friendly, church-going couple, they took Pruitt in when he was 6, after the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services took him away from his mother, Roberta's younger daughter, Karen Pruitt. At the time, she abused drugs and was in and out of prison. Joe Williams, Pruitt's father, wasn't involved in his life.
Karen Pruitt said her son's troubled childhood also included being abused by her ex-boyfriend and seeing her get stabbed in the leg, among other things.
In 1992, the McNeelys decided they could no longer handle Pruitt, who had become more manipulative and violent, and asked DCFS to intervene. DCFS placed Pruitt, then 13, in different local and out-of-state facilities, including a Texas hospital from October 1992 to March 1995. Pruitt begged his grandparents to let him live with them again. The guilt-ridden couple eventually asked that he be released to their care.
Things went well at first, then quickly deteriorated. On Sept. 22, 1996, they filed a 14-day notice with DCFS asking for Pruitt's removal. Pruitt's therapist and Darla Key, Roberta's older daughter, said Pruitt had set several fires in the house, shot a gun in his bedroom, played with knives, verbally abused and intimidated his grandparents and threatened to kill his grandfather several times. He also refused to take medication for his mental disorders because of the side effects.
DCFS officials said they were trying to determine where to place the teen when the McNeelys had a change of heart and rescinded their request for removal on Oct. 6.
On Oct. 17, a social worker stopped by the McNeelys' house to ask Pruitt, then 16, why he'd skipped school the day before, but he refused to talk to her. After she left, he testified at his trial, he sent his grandfather to Burger King to get him something to eat.
While he was gone, Pruitt, for reasons he said he couldn't explain, grabbed a 12-inch kitchen knife and stabbed his grandmother in the back while she lay sleeping. When Pat returned, he asked Pruitt where his wife was. Pruitt told him she was asleep. When Pat got up to check on her, Pruitt stabbed him in the back.
The teen sat on the back porch and smoked several cigarettes. Then he retrieved the knife and went to a friend's house, where he ate his cheeseburger.
That night, the McNeelys' next-door neighbors called the police to report they hadn't seen the couple, but one of them had seen Pruitt get into his grandparents' car and drive off. When two officers forced their way inside, they found the McNeelys' bodies. A short time later, police stopped Pruitt across town and took him into custody.
In the wee hours of the night, Pruitt confessed to the murders and later told them where the knife was. He was charged as an adult on eight counts of first-degree murder.
At his weeklong trial in June 1996, then-Public Defender Robert McIntire tried to prove Pruitt was insane. But then-State's Attorney Michael Clary and first assistant Larry Mills argued the teen was a cold-blooded killer who slaughtered his grandparents because they were having him removed, tried to cover up the crime and showed no remorse.
The jury convicted Pruitt on two counts of murder after deliberating about two hours. On Aug. 16, 1996, Fahey handed down the only sentence available under the law at that time.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
"Probably the liberal that I am, I really wasn't comfortable sentencing someone to something like that," Fahey said recently.
Retired from the bench since 2006, he still remembers the case and the teen "quite well." He recalled being troubled by Pruitt's nonchalant and smug demeanor and "total" lack of remorse during court proceedings.
"I'll never forget driving back from (the trial in) Peoria," said Fahey, who came up behind the sheriff deputy's car Pruitt was riding in. "He was sitting in the back like he didn't have a care in the world."
Fahey said Pruitt "was probably the closest person to Charles Silagy as anyone" he'd dealt with in his 37-year career as a defense attorney, prosecutor and judge, meaning they both exhibited the same sociopathic characteristics.
"It was like they didn't care. Like a life didn't mean anything to them," said Fahey, who was the state's attorney when Silagy tortured and murdered his girlfriend and her roommate on Feb. 14, 1980. Silagy was one of the longest residents on Illinois' death row until the sentence was commuted to life without parole in 2005.
"I suspect Brian was a product of a lot of things," Fahey said, not hiding his disgust for Pruitt's parents. "That's not saying he wasn't culpable, because he absolutely was."
But if he'd had the chance to impose a more lenient sentence, he would have.
"It certainly would have been very substantial. At the time, I absolutely felt he was a danger to society," he said.
Still, "at 17, there's certainly time to change," said Fahey, who agrees with the decision to give judges discretion to weigh both aggravating and mitigating factors and sentence minors on an individual basis. "Everyone has the ability to grow."
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
The question is: Has Pruitt matured and changed behind prison walls? His cousin doesn't think so.
"That man has no business getting out," said John Seal, one of the McNeelys' four grandchildren. "If I have to go sit in the courtroom and tell the judge that, I will."
The Fairmount man said he and his siblings were very close to his grandparents. When Pruitt, who is four days older than Seal, lived with them, the cousins saw a lot of each other.
"He was a nasty little boy — very unruly and disrespectful," Seal recalled. "He was very cruel. He was a little bigger than me, and he was always trying to overpower me."
On the evening of Oct. 17, 1995, Seal and his then-girlfriend were at the Village Mall.
"We were going to stop by the house," he recalled, adding his girlfriend wanted to go home instead. "When I got home, there was a message from my mom on the answering machine, 'Get the hell out of the house. Brian just killed Grandma and Grandpa, and he stole their car.'
"I remember driving past their house. That's when it hit me. I just cried and cried. I still miss those guys so much."
Seal returned to the house a year or two ago when the rental property company he worked for sent him there on a maintenance job. It was his first time back since helping Key clear out his grandparents' belongings.
"Mom put garbage bags down, so we wouldn't have to see the blood stains on the carpet," he said. "When I went back all them years later, the carpet was gone, but it bled through to the wood floors."
Though just a teen himself, Seal said he attended every one of Pruitt's hearings and the trial to support his mother and great-grandmother. He was relieved when his cousin was convicted and received the lifelong sentence.
In a sad twist of fate, Seal's brother, Michael, stabbed their mother to death in her Springfield mobile home on Nov. 16, 2009. John Seal said Michael was living with their mom and apparently became angry when she tried to impose some rules. At his 2012 bench trial, the State Journal-Register reported that their sister testified Michael told her "he was about to do to mother what Brian had done to grandpa."
Michael Seal, who represented himself, was convicted and sentenced to 40 years. In 2015, the state appellate court vacated the conviction on a technicality. Last year, he was convicted and sentenced to the same term again. He too is serving his sentence at Menard.
"I want nothing to do with either one of them," said John Seal, who said he hasn't had any contact with Pruitt since he went away. "The idea that he can change is ridiculous, idealist crap. Whatever happened to him as a little boy made him into what he is. He did things to me you don't want to know. What worries me is what's going to happen if he gets out?"
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Mahadev works with juvenile lifers through the Children and Family Justice Center, part of Northwestern's law school. While she isn't familiar with Pruitt's case, she believes all people have the ability to change, even within the confines of the state penitentiary, and that young people, whose brains are still developing, shouldn't be condemned to die in prison.
"When we sentence that person in what probably is the most awful, terrible moment in their life, we can't know what's going to happen to that person five, 10, 20 years later when they grow up. ... These cases represent an opportunity that hasn't existed in a long time — to look at someone later in life and ask, who did they become and have they done what we expect of children, which is to grow and mature."
Mahadev said she's found that has happened with most of the juvenile lifers she's worked with.
"For some of them as a young person, it was very difficult to process what a life sentence even was," she said. "Then there is moment in their incarceration, when their brains are catching up, that they start to comprehend what the sentence means.
"I would say the vast majority somehow — and I can't tell you how — manage to find hope and humanity in that. They somehow find a way to better themselves given the constraints of prison. They try to take classes. If they have family, they try to maintain those connections. They work on their appeal. They try to better themselves in whatever way they can."