Brenda Johnson screams with joy Thursday as she wraps her arms around her daughter, Tiffany Pritchett, after Pritchett was released from Washington County Jail. (JIM McNUTT/O-R)
Tiffany Pritchett began her new life shortly after 1 p.m. Thursday.
The 30-year-old former Donora woman walked out the rear entrance of the Washington County Jail and into the arms of the her mother, Brenda Johnson, and grandmother, Margie Pritchett. A friend of the family, Calvin Goggins, stood close by.
The sun shone on their faces while a crisp, cold breeze chilled Pritchett's first day of freedom in more than 12 years.
Pritchett, whose life sentence for a 1993 murder was overturned, pleaded no contest Wednesday to a third-degree murder charge before Washington County President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca. In exchange for her plea, Pritchett was given credit for the years she has been in prison and released without parole.
Attorney Noah Geary believed his client's freedom would be immediate after her plea. But that was not the case as the state Department of Corrections needed an original copy of the judge's order to approve Pritchett's release. Pritchett remained behind bars for one more night as a certified copy of the order was sent overnight to the department.
Pritchett's family arrived at the jail shortly after 11 a.m. in anticipation of her release. They withstood the chilling winds and cold temperatures for several hours. Shortly after they decided to warm themselves inside a car, Pritchett walked through the jail door.
"I can't even describe it," she said when questioned about her new freedom.
She talked with tears of joy in her eyes and while grasping a pomegranate that her mother handed to her upon her release.
Pritchett said the fruit was something her mother used to regularly give her to eat as a child. She had not had one since her imprisonment.
"She asked me to bring it, so I brought it," Johnson explained.
Pritchett said she had no immediate plans but to spend time with her family. She added that she will have to acquaint herself with a world that has changed so much over the past decade.
"I was never on the Internet before. I've never used a cell phone before," she said, laughing. "Mostly, I just want to do what I want to do and when I want to do it," such as taking longer than 15 minutes to eat a meal.
Further down the road, Pritchett said she wants to go college. "I want to work with kids to help keep them from making the same mistakes as me," she said.
Pritchett said she's not bitter about her circumstances nor about how her case was handled by Washington County District Attorney John C. Pettit. "He had a job to do and believed he was doing the right thing," she said.
In 1994, Pritchett was convicted of first-degree murder for killing 25-year-old Troy Groomes in a gang-style execution over drugs in Donora. The then-17-year-old girl was sentenced to life in prison and had been lodged at State Correctional Institution in Muncy for the past 143 months and 16 days.
Her case lingered in the court system with a series of appeals, including those filed by Geary, who took the case pro bono nearly six years ago and won her a new trial with his arguments about her representation before and after her conviction.
Pritchett, who has maintained her innocence, initially refused a plea offer after her conviction was reversed. But the chance for freedom and the illness of her grandmother led her to change her mind.
While Pritchett is thrilled to be out of prison, she said there are people she will miss.
"I made friends there. I kind of grew up there. There were older women who helped raise me," she said.
Although she never gave up hope for her freedom, Pritchett said it was difficult at times, especially with a life sentence.
And on the last Sunday before leaving Muncy, she offered hope to other "lifers."
Pritchett explained that at Sunday services, the chaplain asked those inmates who were leaving the prison to come forward so he could say a prayer for them.
"A lifer never stood up in front of the chaplain before," she said. "I didn't tell anybody. And when he asked, I stood up."
She added, "There were people crying. They were happy. I think I so many other lifers hope."
Pritchett credits her family, her faith and attorney for her freedom. Without them, she said she surely would still be in prison.
"When my granddaughter went to prison, I wanted to go with her," said Margie Pritchett, who lives in Virginia but stayed in close contact with her granddaughter while she was incarcerated. "With her getting out, it's like a part of me is coming out, as well."
The elder Pritchett said she would like her granddaughter to move and live with her. But she understands that's a decision that must be made by her granddaughter.
"She's a grown woman now. I have to let her make up her own mind," she said.