GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — On a summer morning in 1978, Tammi Lea Pearo hopped on her bike and took off for the corner store in the nearby town of Conklin. She never came back.
She was 13 years old.
Forty-five years later, one of the men who kidnapped, raped and murdered the Ottawa County teen may be granted a new sentencing.
James Muhamet, now 62, is currently serving life without parole in a Muskegon prison for his role in Pearo’s killing.
But a July 2022 ruling from the Michigan Supreme Court may give him a shot at freedom. In a 4-3 decision, the court outlawed mandatory life sentences for offenders who were 18 years old at the time of their crime.
The decision was issued in an appeal filed by a Genesee County man who was 18 when he aided and abetted a murder.
The justices ruled the man’s no-parole life sentence “violates the Michigan Constitution’s ban on ‘cruel or unusual’ punishment.”
“Specifically, his sentence lacks proportionality because it fails to take into account the mitigating characteristics of youth, specifically late-adolescent brain development,” Justice Elizabeth Welch wrote for the majority.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys predict courts will make the ruling retroactive, requiring the resentencing of no-parole lifers who were 18 when they offended.
After the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life sentences for juveniles in 2012, Michigan Courts released 142 prisoners upon resentencing.
According to the State Appellate Defender’s Office, the July 2022 order regarding 18-year-olds would affect 274 Michigan prisoners. James Muhamet is one of them.
SNATCHED FROM BICYCLE, RAPED, MURDERED
Muhamet was 18 when he and a fellow migrant worker, Thomas K. Nelson, snatched Tammi from her bicycle on Wilson Road near the Muskatawa Trail shortly after 11 a.m. Aug. 21, 1978. She had almost made it home.
“It should have been me on that bike that morning,” declared Monica Graham, one of Tammi’s older sisters.
“I remember mom hollering out in the morning for one of us girls to come in because we slept out in the camper bus,” said Graham, recalling the moments before Tammi left for the store. “I wasn’t feeling good because I get migraine headaches so Tammi went into the house and (mom) had Tammi go to the store to get dad a pack of cigarettes because you could buy them back then without your parents being with you. That was the last time I seen my sister.”
In a scrapbook created by Tammi’s grandmother, newspaper clippings, yellowed with time’s passage, detail the horrific events.
According to the Grand Haven Tribune, Tammi made it to the store that day.
“A clerk told police that Tammi was in the store around 11 a.m. and bought one package of cigarettes and three pieces of penny candy,” Lionel Spartz wrote in a report for the Tribune.
When Tammi did not return home, her family found her abandoned bicycle on the side of Wilson Road, not far from their home in rural Chester Township.
A week later, police found Tammi’s nude body lying face up in some woods in Kent County, about 15 miles northeast of Conklin, according to an article in the Muskegon Chronicle.
“When we finally found her, hell just come upon our whole family,” recalled Graham, tears welling in her eyes. “It changed everything. It changed my world. That was my best friend. That was my baby sister. We did everything together.”
Graham, who had not heard about the July ruling, was stunned to learn of the court’s decision.
“How can they do that to us? We suffered enough through this (expletive) and now you want to bring it up some more and just tear our hearts out?” Graham said, tears now flowing freely.
“(Muhamet) may have only been 18 years old, but they knew what they were doing when they stopped that car on that road. They knew what they were doing when they took my sister off that bike and put her in their car,” she continued. “You took an innocent child’s life. You killed her. You tossed her off in the woods and buried her with branches like a piece of (expletive). You don’t deserve to even still be alive.”
PROSECUTOR: ‘DANGEROUS INDIVIDUALS COULD BE GETTING OUT’
In Kent County, James Muhamet is one of 12 offenders who may require resentencing.
“It’s gut-wrenching,” Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker said in a recent interview with Target 8. “It really is gut-wrenching. I think that’s the biggest thing. I feel sorry for the families. No family ever wanted to go through this. No family should have to go through this. It’s like picking a scab. It’s reopening a wound every single time…”
Becker recently began gathering the files of affected offenders in preparation for potential resentencing hearings. Some of the files are practically nonexistent and Becker has yet to locate any records from Tammi’s 1978 murder. A Kent County Circuit Court clerk told Target 8 files from cases before 1984 have been destroyed. The sheriff’s department will dig through microfilm archives in search of its reports.
Becker can and will fight to maintain life without parole sentences in some cases but there’s no guarantee judges will agree.
“There are some dangerous individuals who could be getting out possibly based on these decisions,” Becker said. “Public safety and the victim impact are the biggest concerns for me.”
Becker said he disagrees with the ruling’s premise.
“To say that (18-year-olds) don’t know or they can’t form the intent… Knowing whether to kill somebody or not kill somebody, that’s not complicated,” he said. “There’s true evil out there and those people shouldn’t be let out.”
Becker said the science upon which the ruling relies indicates brains are not fully developed until age 25.
“Are we going to have 25-year-olds who we can’t be sentenced to life without parole? If you follow the logic that the majority (decision) uses, that could happen,” Becker warned.
NOT A ‘GET OUT OF JAIL FREE’ CARD
Jose Burgos is a former juvenile lifer who was convicted at 16 for his role in a fatal drug deal in Detroit. He was released from a Michigan prison after 27 years due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ban on mandatory no-parole life for juveniles.
Burgos works for the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office, which applauds the Michigan Supreme Court’s July decision.
“Basically, Michigan courts are catching up to brain science when it comes to the development of the brain of adolescents and young adults, saying that at 18 years old, there’s still a capacity for change. The brain is not fully developed,” Burgos said. “And just like what (the U.S. Supreme Court) did with the juvenile lifers, the 18-year-olds as well deserve, at the very minimum, an opportunity to go back in front of a judge and say, ‘For these reasons, I believe that I deserve a term of years.'”
Burgos said the July decision does not amount to a “get out of jail free card.” But it will allow defense attorneys to introduce evidence and testimony regarding traumatic childhood events that shape so many offenders, even at 18.
“So a lot of those things will now be used as mitigating factors. You know, for these reasons, they might have gone down the wrong path in life. We believe this person deserves a second chance, that this person will grow out of crime and has the capacity to do better,” Burgos told Target 8 in a recent Zoom interview.
In fact, Burgos said many former juvenile lifers are doing good things in the outside world, including one man who earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan.
“Every defendant has a constitutional right to fair representation,” Burgos said. “So any evidence, any changes in law that happen this year or next, attorneys are obligated to bring those issues (forward).”
Burgos recognizes the challenges victims face when legal standards change.
“It’s hard to find words to express to a victim’s family…. It’s tough. It’s tough,” he acknowledged.
Nelson, the other man convicted in Tammi’s murder, died in prison in 2017. Muhamet has not been scheduled for resentencing, nor have any other potentially impacted prisoners.
There’s no way to know when courts will decide if the July decision will apply to prisoners retroactively. However, that’s how courts handled the 2012 ruling regarding juvenile lifers, and prosecutors and defenders believe it’s what will happen with the state Supreme Court’s decision on 18-year-olds.