SANTA ANA - A Wisconsin woman broke down in tears in a Santa Ana courtroom Monday when a judge ruled she will not stand trial for a third time on a charge that she murdered her daughter nearly 40 years ago.
Donna Pulsifer Prentice, 62, dabbed at her eyes with tissue when she realized she was going home after more than four years in custody since she was accused of participating in the murder of three-year-old Michelle Pulsifer in July 1969.
The chubby-faced tyke disappeared from the Huntington Beach home Prentice shared with her then boyfriend sometime around the 4th of July weekend in 1969 and has not been seen since.
Superior Court Judge Richard M. King dismissed the murder charge Monday because of insufficient evidence one week after a second jury in the case voted 11-1 for acquittal. Prentice's first trial ended in June 2007 with a jury deadlocked at 10-2 for guilty.
King said the case against Prentice "was investigated and prosecuted both professionally and aggressively. The result of the jury voting 11 for acquittal is a function of the failure of the evidence and nothing else."
He said after even after viewing the evidence "in the light most favorable to the prosecution," a third jury would not vote to convict Prentice of murder.
The judge, however, did not let Prentice off without criticism.
"The most persuasive and undisputed evidence presented … of the defendant's guilt is her post-crime lies of what happened to Michelle," King said.
His ruling also means that Prentice cannot be charged with involuntary manslaughter because the statute of limitations on that crime has expired.
Nobel Prentice, the defendant's husband, looked stunned in the courtroom gallery after King read his decision.
"I love you … I'll see you later," he told Donna Prentice before she was escorted back to the Orange County Jail to be processed out later on Monday.
"I am just so elated," Noble Prentice said. "It hasn't completely sunk in yet."
On the other side of the courtroom, Cathi Pulsifer, the second wife of Richard Pulsifer – little Michelle's father – wept and hugged Senior Deputy District Attorney Larry Yellin.
She said she was most disappointed that now they will never know exactly what happened to Michelle, whose body was never found.
"We wanted her (Donna Prentice) to spend the next 40 years in prison," Cathi Pulsifer said. "At least they were able to keep her locked up for four years, three months and 20 days."
Donna Prentice and James Michael Kent, her former boyfriend, were arrested and charged with Michelle's murder in August 2004. Kent died in custody before he could come to trial. Prentice was held on $1 million bail.
Yellin said he too was disappointed with King's decision to dismiss the murder charge, adding that he felt he could get a murder conviction if the case went to a third jury.
But, he said, "We came a long way from finding out about a little girl who had fallen off the face of the earth. We were able to get some answers about what happened to her, and we tried to hold some people responsible. I am OK with that."
Yellin argued during both trials that Prentice either killed her daughter on her own or helped Kent kill the child for an unknown reason. Prentice, he said, had a responsibility to protect her daughter.
The quest to find out what happened to Michelle was renewed in 2001 when a wealthy former in-law of Richard Pulsifer hired private investigator Paul Chamberlain to locate the missing girl.
Chamberlain, a former FBI agent, found no evidence the little girl ever existed after July 1969 before turning over his findings to Orange County District Attorney's investigator Ed Berakovich, a veteran homicide detective.
In September 2003, Donna Prentice told the detective in an interview that Kent gave Michelle to his mother to care for when they relocated to Illinois. But authorities quickly learned that Kent's mother was an alcoholic who was suffering from a cancer that would cause her death in the early 1970s.
Kent later told Berakovich in an interview that Donna Pulsifer called him upstairs to the rental home they shared in Huntington Beach one day in early July 1969 and showed him the lifeless body of her little girl. Kent admitted that he buried the little girl in Williams Canyon.
Defense attorney Ken Norelli insisted that Prentice was "a good, loving, nurturing mother" who "loved every single child who came into her life." He insisted that Kent was the person solely responsible for killing Michelle.
Kent was "a psychopath" and "a monster" who was abusive to women and children and who deceived and manipulated Prentice for years during their stormy relationship, Norelli said.
In his motion to dismiss the murder charges filed Monday, Norelli argued that an acquittal would be likely if the case was tried a third time.
After King ordered his client released, Norelli said "justice has been served. …She's going home with her husband."