by David Eggert, Associated Press Writer
Blackman Township, Mich. December 18, 2008 (AP)
Efren Paredes Jr. wasn't old enough to drive when he was sentenced to life in prison without parole for murdering his boss.
Now 35, he has an outside chance at freedom after proclaiming his innocence for almost two decades.
The possibility is a nightmare for the victim's family, who thought his killer would die behind bars. But it means hope for Paredes and supporters who say he was wrongfully convicted because of a rush to judgment, an unfair trial and slanted media coverage.
The decision rests with Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who under the state constitution can commute criminal sentences. She likely will give weight to whatever recommendation comes from the Michigan Parole Board, which recently held an emotional, nine-hour public hearing on Paredes' clemency request.
"I will not take responsibility for a crime I did not commit," Paredes told parole board members. "I never will do that even if it meant I could leave today."
Grocery store manager Rick Tetzlaff, 28, was shot to death March 8, 1989, during a robbery at Roger's Foodland in St. Joseph, in southwestern Michigan. Paredes was a 15-year-old part-time bagger at the store who had no criminal record before his arrest.
The hearing before the parole board drew more than 140 people. Somber police and prosecutors who worked the case, along with Tetzlaff's tearful family and friends, traveled hours to testify against Paredes' release.
A large group of supporters came out for Paredes, including family, a Lansing radio host, Michigan State University Latino students, peace activists and a private investigator who has helped free innocent people from prison.
While commutation proceedings have become more common in the governor's second term, few; if any; have gained as much attention.
More than just about Paredes' guilt of innocence, the case has become a referendum of sorts on whether convicts should get mandatory life sentences without parole for crimes committed before age 18. Paredes is among more than 300 juvenile lifers in Michigan's 49,000-inmate system.
Advocates see Paredes as an inspirational figure who made the best of prison by earning a GED, becoming a teacher's aide, writing poetry and transcribing textbooks into Braille. Paredes wants to start a Braille transcription business if he is freed.
"Please don't sacrifice this man's future to cover up the mistakes of the justice system," said Joyce Gouwens, who has served on a county juvenile justice task force.
Opponents see Paredes as a cold-blooded monster with a comfortable upbringing who would be a threat to society.
"I'm angry I have to be here," said Tina Tetzlaff, Rick's wife, who was pregnant with their second child when her husband was killed.
She acknowledged Paredes is making strides in prison but told the parole board her two sons grew up without their dad, afraid of the world and in need of psychological treatment. She said Paredes should serve his full sentence.
Prosecutors argued that mandatory life without parole for first-degree murder is Michigan's promise to victims' families, a trade-off for not having the death penalty.
Chairwoman Barbara Sampson said the parole board has no authority to exonerate Paredes. Instead, it will address questions typical in parole and clemency cases: Does the punishment fit the crime? Does a prisoner pose a risk to society? Has he or she made progress in prison?
Board members usually want to see remorse. But Paredes has repeatedly said he's innocent, leading an assistant attorney general and board members to spend much of the hearing probing evidence.
They heard competing versions of Tetzlaff's death.
Prosecutors said Paredes planned and executed a "thrill kill." He was the last worker to punch out before the after-hours shooting. A teen who served time for his role in the crime told jurors he picked up Paredes from the store after Paredes shot his boss and took $11,000 in cash and checks.
But Paredes' mother said he was home at the time of the murder, insisting she saw Tetzlaff drop off her son before returning to the store. Supporters said those responsible for the crime lied, cut deals and blamed Paredes to save themselves.
Paul Ciolino, a Chicago-based private investigator who was hired by Paredes' family and has helped free five men from Illinois' death row, called his case a "classic" wrongful conviction.
The trial ended 3 1/2 months after Paredes' arrest. Paredes said he had an inept lawyer who didn't investigate on his behalf or counter negative pretrial publicity coming from law enforcement.
The jury foreman was a co-worker of the victim's wife's aunt. Paredes alleged the foreman persuaded other jurors who initially voted 9-3 for acquittal. State and federal courts have upheld the conviction.
Paredes' backers want age to be a factor in the governor's decision. He was 16 when he was convicted.
"I could have turned out to be the person others have tried to make me out to be," Paredes said. "I'm asking for a second chance to reclaim my life."