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‘Worthy of mercy’: Maryland’s longest-serving woman behind bars wins her freedom amid coronavirus concerns

Eraina Pretty, interviewed by ABC News in 2015, until Monday was Maryland's longest-incarcerated woman. She was set free after a joint motion by prosecutors and her attorney. Her daughter and advocates say she was recently hospitalized with the coronavirus.
Eraina Pretty, interviewed by ABC News in 2015, until Monday was Maryland's longest-incarcerated woman. She was set free after a joint motion by prosecutors and her attorney. Her daughter and advocates say she was recently hospitalized with the coronavirus. (ABC News)

She stepped into prison at 18 years old. She gets out at age 61.

Eraina Pretty, the longest-serving female prisoner in Maryland, won her freedom Monday from a Baltimore Circuit Court judge. The Northwest Baltimore woman has served more than four decades behind bars for her part as a teenage accomplice in two 1970s murders.

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Over the years, she mentored other prisoners, won respect for her leadership behind bars, even assembled Braille books for the blind. State lawmakers and advocates of prison reform have championed her many tries for release.

Circuit Judge Yvette Bryant re-sentenced Pretty to time served.

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“Ms. Pretty’s release was the result of many years of advocacy. We are grateful to Marilyn Mosby and to the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, who ultimately agreed that Ms. Pretty was worthy of the mercy the court exercised in her re-sentencing,” said her attorneys, Leigh Goodmark and Lila Meadows, in a brief statement.

Pretty becomes the second prisoner released through the partnership of defense attorneys and a new unit of the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office. The unit works to set free aging prisoners who pose no threat to public safety and are at-risk of the coronavirus.

“Ms. Pretty has served 42 years in prison. She has not only redeemed herself but exemplifies the need for second chances in our criminal justice system and while we recognize the hurt and trauma that lives everyday with the survivors of this unfortunate incident, we remain committed to ensuring restorative support as they heal,” State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in a statement.

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Pretty had been serving a 60-year sentence for murder, handgun and accessory charges. She pleaded guilty to the charges in September 1978.

Her older boyfriend at the time had robbed and killed the Baltimore social worker Preston Cornish and police found the gun in her grandmother’s apartment. She pleaded guilty to the accessory charge in that case.

Two months after the murder, she helped two killers enter the all-night grocery store of Louis Thomas on Reisterstown Road. She had worked for Thomas and he opened the door for her. Her boyfriend and an accomplice robbed and shot and the grocer and father of four. She pleaded guilty to the murder charge for his killing.

Family members of the two victims could not be found Monday.

Pretty’s old boyfriend, Ronald Brown, died in prison. His accomplice, Michael Coffee, remains locked up.

“I was a little scared kid. All I wanted was attention. I wanted somebody to love me,” Pretty told news anchor Diane Sawyer in a tearful interview in 2015.

While locked up, Pretty earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Morgan State University. She took computer courses and worked as a data entry clerk for more than 20 years. She organized self-help lunches and volunteered for charity work. In a news release from the State’s Attorney’s Office, correctional officers described her as a role model. Her record behind bars showed three rules infractions in more than three decades.

Her freedom was granted at the request of the Sentencing Review Unit. Mosby announced last week she has hired the former deputy public defender Becky Feldman to run the unit and review the cases of aging prisoners. Pretty becomes the second person released through the unit.

The first, Calvin McNeill, 56, was set free last summer. He had been serving life in prison for a dice game robbery and murder committed while he was a teenager. McNeill was released in July and ordered to five years of probation.

An order in April from Maryland Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera opened the door for such releases. Barbera ordered trial courts statewide to identify and release prisoners who are at-risk of the virus and no threat. Under this order, prosecutors may ask the courts to reconsider the prison terms of men and women across Maryland.

Pretty’s case has been raised as a cause for prison reform. Twice the Maryland Parole Commission concluded she was sufficiently remorseful and no longer a threat. Gov. Martin O’Malley denied her release in 2011. Gov. Larry Hogan denied her again last year. Maryland is one of three states that allow the governor to reject a recommendation from the parole commission.

Meanwhile, a petition was started online to call for her release; it shows 3,500 signatures today. In May, 55 state delegates signed an open letter to Hogan urging him to set Pretty free.

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