DANVILLE — Brian Pruitt told a judge on Tuesday that he isn't the same troubled teen he was 23 1/2 years ago when he stabbed both of his grandparents in the back and then left them to die in the small Danville home they shared with him.
"I think before I act," the now-40-year-old inmate at Menard Correctional Center told Vermilion County Circuit Judge Tom O'Shaughnessy, when the judge asked him directly what was different about him today.
"It used to be just do this, do that, and I didn't really weigh the consequences or think about down the line," Pruitt continued. "I think overall, I'm not that kid anymore. I grew up in a prison and still managed to better myself."
Pruitt's comments came at his long-awaited new sentencing hearing for the Oct. 17, 1995, murders of Frank "Pat" McNeely, 58, and Roberta "Bobbie" McNeely, 57, who were also foster parents to the then-16-year-old.
On Aug. 16, 1996, Pruitt, then 17, was sentenced to mandatory life behind bars for the murders, which was the only sentence available for his crime at that time.
However, he and other "juvenile lifers" are entitled to new sentencing hearings, giving them the opportunity for parole one day, under landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings — 2012's Miller v. Alabama, which declared mandatory life without parole for minors unconstitutional, and 2016's Montgomery v. Louisiana, which made the previous decision retroactive to all cases prior to 2012.
While life-without-parole sentences are still permissible, a judge can only impose that after considering individual circumstances, whether the offender has been reformed, the offender's family and home life and other mitigating factors.
On Tuesday, Vermilion County State's Attorney Jacqueline Lacy asked O'Shaughnessy to give Pruitt natural life in prison, arguing that the murders were "absolutely premeditated," Pruitt has shown little to no remorse and the sentence is needed to protect the public.
The hearing was continued to 9:30 a.m. June 10, when Leon Parker, Pruitt's attorney, will ask the judge to give his client — who, he said, has matured and behaved in prison — a sentence that would give him a chance to be released and become a productive citizen.
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Under questioning by Parker, Pruitt and his mother, Karen, both described his early childhood as tumultuous, largely due to her addiction to drugs.
Karen Pruitt, who has been sober for 19 years and lived in Peoria the past 15, said she and her son, then 3, lived with a man named Clyde Jones.
"He used to beat on me, and he stabbed me, which Brian witnessed," she said, adding she lived with him for two years.
When her son wet the bed, "he'd yank him out of his bed by his arm and beat him with a shoe," she continued.
She said she eventually got away from Jones. But after she began abusing drugs again, she called the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and asked them to take custody of her son.
Brian Pruitt said he met his father, Joe Williams, once, the year before his arrest. After that, Williams visited him in jail and then visited, called and wrote him letters when he was sent to prison until he died in 2013.
Pruitt recalled living briefly with a foster mother, who didn't treat him well. Then, he lived mostly with the McNeelys from the time he was in first grade to when he was 13 and attending middle school.
But one day, he recalled, Danville police juvenile investigator Gene Woodard picked him up from school and delivered him to DCFS, which placed him in a series of group homes, from which he ran away; the Danville hospital's psychiatric ward; and facilities in Phoenix and Texas.
He described the treatment center in Phoenix as "horrible," saying they forced him to take psychotropic and mood-altering drugs that dulled his thinking and put him in restraints when he refused. While he liked the Texas facility, where he was treated better and allowed to go on outings to the movies and arcade, he said staff eventually told him "it was time for me to go," and he returned to his grandparents' home.
Under questioning by Parker, Pruitt said things went well at first, then he got caught skipping school and staying out late with friends, and he stopped taking his medication.
However, Lacy said, despite his grandparents fighting hard to get him back, he refused to follow their rules, which included controlling his anger and violent behavior.
Later, she read a letter Roberta McNeely wrote to her grandson's caseworker at Catholic Social Services, sharing that a few months after moving back, Pruitt stole items and sold them for money, burned holes into the carpet in his bedroom, stabbed things, slept all day and stayed up all night and took their car without permission and hit the corner of their garage, among other things.
"Sometimes, I feel we are in peril, and we should not have to live like that," read Lacy, who went on to question Pruitt about sending his grandfather out for food, getting a knife from the kitchen, going into his grandmother's bedroom and stabbing her in the back as she lay sleeping, then waiting for his grandfather to return and stabbing him in the back.
"You took the car ... and you still didn't call 911? And these were the same people who took you into their home and loved you, right?" she asked Pruitt, to which he responded yes.
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Parker questioned Pruitt about his incarceration, which included stints at Pontiac and nine years at the now-closed Tamms "supermax" prison, which Pruitt described as "where they sent the worst of the worst."
He acknowledged getting violations and being put into segregation for things like throwing water and spitting on a guard and playing his radio too loud but said he hasn't had a violation since 2010, and he has never had a physical altercation while he's been locked up. In addition, he said, he has taken some classes that taught him how to manage his emotions and money and realize the impact his offenses had on his victims' loved ones, and started going to church occasionally.
Before "I always wanted to blame everyone else," he said, telling O'Shaughnessy his change in behavior "was really about looking myself in the mirror and taking responsibility for my actions."
If released, Pruitt said he hopes to get a job, continue his education and get a place of his own, even though he would have to start out living with his mother and her roommate, Dee Veteto, both of whom testified they had the means and desire to help him with those things if he were released.
"Whatever he needs to rebuild his life and become a citizen," Karen Pruitt said.
But Lacy pointed out that Pruitt was in prison for 15 years before he stopped getting violations, and suggested he was able to do so because he's in a controlled environment and has guards telling him what he can do and when.
Lacy also pointed out that when she asked Pruitt why he killed his grandparents, his response was "I still don't know why."
"He can tell you that he loved them, and they were good people," she said. "But he has no idea why he murdered them. ... This defendant has been incarcerated for 24 years, and he still can't tell you why he killed his grandparents, the people that loved him the most."