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Mistrial declared in death of O.C. toddler in 1969

The jury deadlocks in favor of convicting Donna Prentice, the victim's mother. The prosecutor vows to retry her for murder.

June 21, 2007|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

A mistrial was declared Wednesday in the case of a woman charged in the 1969 murder of her toddler in Huntington Beach, a case that prosecutors say involved a lifelong coverup that left the girl's father and brother in a long search for answers.

An Orange County jury deliberated about 15 hours over four days before informing Superior Court Judge James A. Stotler that they were hopelessly deadlocked 10 to 2 in favor of convicting Donna Prentice.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Larry Yellin said he planned to retry Prentice for the murder of her 3-year-old daughter, Michelle Pulsifer, who had mysteriously disappeared and has never been found.

"I'm extremely disappointed I'm this close and didn't get it," Yellin said. "I'm absolutely convinced she's legally responsible for this murder."

Defense attorney Ronald G. Brower said he was also disappointed in the outcome but not completely surprised by it. He said he knew the tide had turned against his client when the judge, at the behest of the prosecutor and despite his protests, allowed jurors to consider whether she had failed to protect or abandoned her daughter.

"I knew the case turned a different color [at that point], and we would have significant problems," he said.

Prentice, 60, of Wisconsin, "was glad she was not convicted," according to Brower.

Prentice and her then-boyfriend, James Michael Kent, were arrested in 2004 after an investigation driven primarily by the family of the girl's father, Richard Pulsifer, who said he could never get a straight answer from Prentice about their daughter's whereabouts after they divorced.

Kent also had been charged with the toddler's death but died in 2005 at age 63 while in custody. In a taped confession he left behind, he admits burying Michelle but not killing her.

He told investigators that one morning Prentice came out of the girl's bedroom ashen-faced, and when he entered the room, she was already dead.

Yellin and investigators have never said how and why they believe Michelle was killed, just that she has not been seen since the couple abruptly packed up their Huntington Beach home and moved to Illinois in July 1969, taking their two young sons from other marriages with them.

Brower portrayed Kent as the likely killer. Prentice told investigators that she believed Kent had taken Michelle to his mother's house before they relocated, then followed Kent's orders never to discuss the girl again out of fear of what he might do to her.

Juror Terry Coffelt, 65, said he and the rest of the panel thought Kent had no credibility, and that the deliberations got hung up mainly on the fact that there was no smoking gun or any evidence corroborating the statements that Kent made to police about Prentice.

"We couldn't believe anything he said. It's all circumstantial evidence, and there was nothing you could hang your hat on," Coffelt said.

Coffelt said he voted in favor of Prentice's guilt because if she "was a good mother like everyone says she was," she wouldn't have given away her child and then made no attempt to track her down.

"Most of us were hard-pressed to believe that this good mother would hand over her child" to Kent "and then never make an attempt to find her," he said.

The jury foreman, who declined to give his name, said he voted in favor of Prentice's innocence because he believed she was scared of Kent and that the government had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that she knew Michelle was killed or that she had abandoned or failed to protect her daughter.

"I didn't think there was strong evidence all the way through this," he said.

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christine.hanley@latimes.com

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