Victim's Kin Heartened by Commutation Reversal
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The phone rang at 9 a.m. Friday with unexpected news from Michigan's governor, and Larry Puma let the relief wash away the pain of the past two days, though not the last 22 years.
In 1988, Mr. Puma's 19-year-old nephew, Pietro Puma, was stabbed to death in a robbery in suburban Detroit. Two men were sentenced to life without parole. But one, Matthew Makowski, 43, was recommended for commutation by a parole board vote after a public hearing in October. He was the mastermind of the robbery gone bad, the authorities said, but was not present at the stabbing.
Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat who is days away from the end of her term, commuted Mr. Makowski's sentence on Wednesday. But the Puma family was stunned because they never knew about the public hearing, so they protested loudly through the news media on Thursday.
When Ms. Granholm learned of their objections, she halted the commutation in a rare decision.
"There is a process, and the process has worked," said Liz Boyd, a spokeswoman for Ms. Granholm. "We appreciate the family coming forward."
Even though Ms. Granholm sent the case back to the parole board, which will formally hear the objections of the victim's family, the authorities believe the case is closed because of political circumstances. On Jan. 1, Rick Snyder, a Republican, will be sworn in as governor.
"The next administration has told us that there won't be any carryover, and there's not time left in this governor's administration," said Russ Marlan, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections. A message left for Mr. Snyder's spokeswoman was not returned.
"For all practical purposes," Mr. Marlan said, "the commutation for this prisoner is done."
Larry Puma, 66, was emotional before Christmas Eve, saying that Pietro Puma's four siblings were overjoyed. "There were a lot of tears in the family," he said from Harper Woods, Mich. "It's a wonderful gift."
Mr. Marlan said that the victim's family did not attend the public hearing in October because no one had registered to get notification of a prisoner's status, as is provided by the 1985 Crime Victims Rights Act. Since the 1988 trial, the victim's parents had both died. "How would I know to register if no one told us to register?" Mr. Puma said.
The Wayne County prosecutor's office said it was the responsibility of the Department of Corrections to contact the family or provide the prosecutor with contact information. Maria Miller, the Wayne County assistant prosecutor, said that the Department of Corrections has told her office it would not release that information because it was a violation of the Crime Victims Rights Act.
The Puma family said they had no reason to think anything had changed. "Why would anybody in the family be searching the Internet to find information if you understood 22 years ago that a man was sentenced to life without parole?" Mr. Puma said.
Mr. Makowski had been a friend of his nephew's, Mr. Puma said. Pietro, known as Pete, worked at a health club and Mr. Makowski was his boss. Knowing that Pete Puma would be delivering a $700 check, Mr. Makowski planned the robbery, the authorities said. When it went wrong, Mr. Makowski comforted the family and even gave a eulogy, Mr. Puma said. At his sentencing, the judge called Mr. Makowski "manipulative" and said he showed no remorse.
"It is difficult to understand the initial decision commuting his sentence," Ms. Miller said. "He is 43 years of age with no health problems, a violent past and he played a significant role in the violent death of a 19-year-old man who was purportedly his friend. At the very least the family members should have been heard."
First Published December 24, 2010 11:50 pm