Donna Prentice spent the last four years in Orange County Jail and sat through two trials on charges that she killed her toddler nearly 40 years ago. On Monday, the 61-year-old learned she would be released after a judge ruled that there was not enough evidence to try her a third time.
Prentice, her gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, broke down in tears after hearing Superior Court Judge Richard M. King's decision to dismiss the case that he said was a "roller coaster of emotions."
The ruling closes a long and trying case that prosectors said involved decades of lies by Prentice that led the toddler's other family members on a futile search for answers. The defense, however, portrayed Prentice as a loving mother who was manipulated and forced to repeatedly change the story of what happened to her daughter.
Prentice's second trial ended in a mistrial last week, when jurors deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of acquittal on second-degree murder and 7 to 5 in favor of guilt on a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. A jury in the first trial, in 2007, deadlocked 10 to 2 in favor of conviction of second-degree murder.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, December 17, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Prentice case: Donna Prentice, whose murder case was dismissed Monday, was pictured in the Orange County Edition of Tuesday's California section with her former attorney, Ron Brower. The photo was taken at the start of her trial in 2007. She has been represented most recently by alternate Deputy Public Defender Ken Norelli.
In 1969, Prentice and her then-boyfriend, James Michael Kent, left their Huntington Beach home with their two 6-year-old boys from other marriages, but without 3-year-old Michelle Pulsifer, Prentice's daughter.
The body of the toddler has never been found. Prosecutors argued that Prentice either killed Michelle or played a role in her killing. It was also argued that she helped bury Michelle's body in a canyon in south Orange County.
Kent was also charged with the girl's death but died in custody in 2005. In a taped statement, Kent denied killing Michelle and said she was found lifeless in her bedroom after Prentice came out of the room.
In the decades since Michelle's disappearance, Prentice changed her story multiple times as the little girl's father and brother tried to find out what happened.
Prentice's actions after the girl disappeared were the "most disputed evidence," the judge said. But King said he believed there was insufficient evidence to persuade another set of jurors that Prentice had killed her daughter.
"The case cannot be prosecuted any better," the judge said. "The time for closure in this case is now."
Prentice had been living in Wisconsin with her third husband, Noble Prentice, when she was arrested in 2004. On Monday, her husband was smiling widely in the courtroom and said later that he was in shock. "I got so pumped up afterward, I kept thinking, 'Did they really say that?' She's been gone for over four years. That's a really long time."
Relatives of Michelle's father, who have been in court nearly every day, said the ruling would give them closure but would not give them the answers they have been searching for for decades.
"I'm disappointed that we don't know anything more except that Michelle is not with us," said Catherine Pulsifer, who is married to Michelle's father, Richard Pulsifer, who was Prentice's first husband.
Family members are planning a ceremony on Michelle's birthday this year, which would have been her 43rd, at which they will write messages on a balloon to be released into the air.
Pulsifer already knows what she will write: "Rest in peace."