Four decades after rape conviction, Omaha man gets parole; maintains his innocence

Photos of Pratt's disputed police line-up in 1975. (Photo courtesy Omaha Police Department)
Pratt thanks Parole Board member Roslyn Cotton following vote. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
Listen to this story: 

May 18, 2017 - 6:45am

After spending nearly 42 years in prison, 15,236 days, Juneal Pratt was granted parole. He assured members of the Nebraska Parole Board it was his intent to never give the state a reason to put him back in custody.


Pratt faces Nebraska Parole Board

Dale Carter and his wife listen to Pratt's testimony. (Photos by Bill Kelly, NET News)

In 1975 Pratt was convicted of rape and an unrelated purse snatching in Omaha. While in jail, he earned additional time for two escape attempts.

At an April 27 meeting, the Parole Board voted 3-1 to grant Pratt parole.

From the day he was arrested, and in multiple unsuccessful court appeals, Pratt claimed he had been wrongly accused of the sexual assault. He had been eligible for parole since 2001, but his requests were denied, in part, because Pratt was unwilling to admit to the original crime.

In recent years, the Nebraska Innocence Project spearheaded new efforts to clear Pratt’s name.

Pratt was arrested in 1975 for a purse snatching. Omaha Police detectives believed the 20-year-old with many previous run-ins with the law should be a suspect in the rape of two sisters in a downtown motel the week before. The investigators organized a three-person line-up and the victims identified Pratt. At the trial, a jury felt there was enough evidence to convict Pratt.

Following the verdict, Douglas County District Judge Rudolph Tesar gave Pratt close to the maximum possible sentence, with each charge to be served back-to-back. Later the Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed the 90-year sentence, writing “the fact that a sentence may be harsh does not mean that it is necessarily excessive.”

“The lengthy incarceration is the direct result of the multiplicity of offenses which the defendant committed,” the Supreme Court wrote in a 1977 opinion.

Pratt and his defenders disputed the validity of the original police line-up at trial and on appeal. The Douglas County attorney rigorously fought to uphold the conviction.

Most of the techniques used by the Omaha officers in preparing the Pratt line-up have been shown through research in recent years to increase the potential for misidentifying those accused.

Decades of unsuccessful appeals followed, including two efforts to use improving technology to re-test DNA evidence. Each new test did not place Pratt at the crime scene, however the aging evidence sent to the laboratory was sufficiently degraded that it failed to provide the evidence needed for a new trial or exoneration.

Pratt returned to the parole board to request release during the body’s regularly scheduled meeting at the Omaha Correctional Center. His case was the first of the day, determining who of those eligible for parole would leave jail that day or who is not ready to transition back into the community.

Seated before four of the five board members, Pratt did not talk about his guilt or innocence, focusing on reassuring the board he was ready to rejoin society at large.

“I’ve had a long time to figure out things I want to do. I have had even more time to figure out (what) I better not do,” Pratt said. Speaking slowly and deliberately, he added that he chooses “to live inside the boundaries of the law because I understand now that it’s necessary for me to maintain my freedom and it’s the right thing to do.”

THE LINE-UP

Pratt (right) in the 1975 Omaha Police Department line-up. (Photo courtesy OPD)


ADDITIONAL COVERAGE

NET News coverage of the use of eyewitness testimony

Reforms urged in Nebraska police lineup procedures

Board members were familiar with Pratt after years of regular appearances. Teresa Bittinger asked skeptical questions about one of the few rule violations he had on his record since transferring to the low-security Omaha facility.

Members Randall Rehmeier and Rosalyn Cotton questioned him about his ability to cope with life outside of jail.

Cotton wondered if he had made progress in his interpersonal relationships. Leaning across the table, Carter said, “Relationships have always been a problem with you!” She repeated “always” two more times for emphasis.

Pratt, with four decades of prison life, responded with a half-laugh and shake of his head. “Yeah, because I never had any!” He called building those types of relationships “a developmental process.”

That process, Pratt told the board, was part of “learning to develop the relationships I have with my family and friends and support people to keep them on track with where I am at so they are always able to offer input, and advice and suggestions.”

He pointed to the bond he’s established with his son, Dale Carter, and his family. In recent months Pratt has been able to stay with Carter on furlough weekends.

Carter was two years old when his father was sent to prison. He also did a brief stint in jail for felony forgery and now works part time with Release Ministries, counseling inmates who, like his own father, may find it difficult to transition on the outside.

Speaking on his father’s behalf before the board, Carter said he was moved that Pratt is “aware he is older and don’t have a lot of time left” to live a better life.

With Pratt living in his home, Carter assured the board he “doesn’t just want him to be free. I want him to be respectful around my kids, respectful around my wife, respectful to my neighbors.”

Members of the parole board can, and often do, ask prisoners appearing before them whether they are remorseful for the crimes that brought them to prison. That question was not asked of Pratt on this day.

Later I asked Pratt if he had prepared an answer had anyone asked if he was sorry for what he had done. He had.

“I would have told them this truth,” Pratt said, leaving his job. “I am responsible for the behavior that led me to prison, because had I not been doing drugs and drinking and operating in such a haphazard way, then I would not have been in a position to be accused of anything.”

Seventy-six offenses were listed in the pre-sentencing report filed at the time of his trial, covering the five years prior to his arrest at age 20. Most were minor charges but included arrests for felony burglary and assault. The Supreme Court said Pratt had shown “little concern for the person and property of others” and added “despite repeated encounters with law enforcement authorities, he has refused to alter his course of conduct.”

Thinking back to that time in his life, Pratt believes that, while maintaining his innocence in the rape case, “my choices were to live my life in such a way that my character could be connected to a senseless and unnecessary act of violence.”

He added, emphasizing each word individually, “So I blame me.”

At the hearing, testimony is allowed from those opposed to releasing an applicant for parole. Notice is given to the Douglas County attorney, the Nebraska attorney general, and, if located, the victims of the crime. No one appeared to object to Pratt’s request.

Immediately prior to the roll call vote, Board Chair Rex Richard asked, “Are you ready to go?” “Absolutely,” Pratt responded enthusiastically.

“It concerns me a little bit that you are that confident,” Richard replied.

“It’s not hard for me to be confident that I will be fine because as long as I am not under the influence of alcohol and drugs and my thinking is clear, as it is today, I feel if you have God in the driver’s seat it don’t matter who you have in the back seat.”

The board’s vote comes with the understanding he would follow the long list of requirements and conditions that follow anyone paroled.

Pratt shook hands and thanked three of the board members. Bittinger, who cast the lone no vote, turned away as Pratt approached.

Minutes later all his jailhouse possessions were loaded into a garden cart and wheeled through the parking lot to his son’s pick-up truck.

It was lunch time and they joined family and his supporters for pie.

Discussion

 

blog comments powered by Disqus