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Efren Paredes, serving Life, asks Gov. Granholm for freedom

By DAVID EGGERT, Associated Press Writer

Dec. 17, 2008 (AP): Honor-student Efren Paredes Jr. wasn't old enough to drive when sentenced to Life in prison without parole for murdering his boss at age 15.

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 also means hope for Paredes and supporters who say he was wrongfully convicted because of a rush to judgment, unfair trial, and slanted media coverage.

Efren Paredes Jr., Age 15

Grocery store manager Rick Tetzlaff, 28, was shot to death March 8, 1989, during a robbery at Roger's Foodland in St. Joseph. Paredes was a part-time bagger at the store who had no criminal record before his arrest and jury conviction. St. Joseph is near Benton Harbor, which is south of Holland.

The decision rests with Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who under the state constitution can commute, or reduce, criminal sentences. She likely will give weight to whatever recommendation comes from the Michigan Parole Board, which this month held an emotional, nine-hour public hearing on Paredes' clemency request.

``I will not take responsibility for a crime I did not commit,'' a handcuffed Paredes told parole board members. ``I never will do that even if it meant I could leave today.''

The record-long hearing inside a Jackson-area prison training facility drew more than 140 people.

While commutation proceedings have become more common in the governor's second and final term, few—if any—have gained as much attention or inflamed so many passions.

The case isn't just about guilt or innocence but also is a referendum of sorts on whether prisoners 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.

Somber police and prosecutors who worked the case, along with tearful family and friends, traveled hours to testify against his 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.

To advocates, Paredes was ``Efren”—an inspirational figure who went to prison a boy and made the best of it by earning a GED, becoming a teacher's aide, writing poetry, maintaining a good prison record and transcribing textbooks into Braille. He wants to start a Braille transcription business if let out.

``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 Berrien County juvenile justice task force.

To opponents, Paredes was ``inmate 203116”—a cold-blooded monster with a comfortable upbringing who would be a threat to society if freed.

``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 asked the parole board to remember her two sons who grew up without their dad, afraid of the world and in need of psychological treatment. She said Paredes should serve out the term he was given.

Efren Paredes Jr., Age 33

Prosecutors said mandatory life with no parole for first-degree murder is Michigan's promise to victims' families, a trade-off for not having the death penalty.

The parole board will take longer than normal to give Granholm a recommendation because of the volume of materials to review.

Chairwoman Barbara Sampson said the board has no authority to exonerate Paredes. It instead will address typical questions 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?

Usually, the board also wants to see remorse. But Paredes has continually said he's innocent, prompting an assistant attorney general and board members to spend much of the hearing probing evidence.

They heard two competing versions of what happened.

Prosecutors said Paredes planned and executed a ``thrill kill.'' He was the last worker to punch out before the after-hours homicide. A teen who served time for his role in the crime told jurors he picked up Paredes from the store after Paredes shot Tetzlaff and took $11,000 in cash and checks.

But Paredes' mother said he was home during the murder, insisting she saw Tetzlaff himself drop her son off before returning to the store. Supporters said those responsible for the crime lied, cut deals and pointed the finger at Paredes to save themselves.

Paul Ciolino, a Chicago-based private investigator who was hired by the Paredes family and has helped free five men from Illinois' death row, called his case a ``classic'' wrongful conviction.

The trial ended just 31/2 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 coworker of the victim's wife's aunt. Paredes alleged the foreman was crucial in persuading other jurors who initially voted 9-3 for acquittal. Prosecutors said state and federal courts have upheld the conviction.

Both sides are so much at odds that they can't even agree on Paredes' first name. His family says it's ``Efren,'' law enforcement and prison officials have it as ``Efran.''

Paredes' odds of release probably are slim, though he may stand a better chance than at any other time during Granholm's six years in office.

In her first term, the Democratic governor commuted nine sentences of sick or aging inmates thought to be close to death. Since winning re-election and creating a clemency council in 2007 to help review cases and trim high prison costs, Granholm has ended 52 prison terms early—many for non-medical reasons.

She has commuted 14 first-degree murder sentences this year. Those offenders spent an average of 37 years in prison before their release. Some were ill.

``This prisoner is not either of those,'' said Berrien County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Michael Sepic, who tried Paredes' case.

Paredes' backers said age should be a factor but in the other direction. He was 15 when the crime was committed and 16 when he was convicted.

Supporters said even if Paredes did murder Tetzlaff, juveniles shouldn't be treated the same as adults when they're deemed too young to vote, for example.

``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.''

David Eggert can be reached at:  [email protected]
On the Net: The Injustice Must End: http://www.4efren.com





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