Josh Puckett fights for freedom

Son of murdered lesbian couple faces life in prison while activists search for clemency

By Crystal A. Proxmire

The 1992 murder of the Huron Township couple Christine Puckett and Susan Pittmann sent fear, anger and devastation surging through the Detroit-area LGBT community. Candlelight vigils were held, activist groups spoke out against hate and, in 2002, Affirmations dedicated a community art gallery in their name.

But Joshua Puckett knew nothing of the honor given to his mothers after their deaths. He was 14 years old when his mother and her partner were gunned down in cold blood in their own front yard by a homophobic neighbor. Puckett's family guarded him from the trial and rarely talked about his mothers' deaths. He never knew the fate of the killer, who was convicted and later died in prison while serving his sentence. And if anyone in the community had wondered what had become of the happy little kid who used to run around at the feet of the earliest local activists back when groups like Affirmations and Triangle were just starting up, he never knew about it.

But four years ago, while serving a life in prison on a first degree murder conviction, Puckett was found by documentary director Brian Alexander, who is currently producing The Pittmann-Puckett Documentary, a film about his mothers' murders.

"I was so honored to hear how many people cared about my mom, but it hurts, too, that I didn't get to share in all that," Puckett says now from the medium-security correctional facility where he has spent the last 15 years of his life. "My grandfather kept me sheltered. I know he was trying to protect me, but I really lacked closure.

"And then I ended up in here."

A difficult history

Six months before his mothers were murdered, Josh Puckett was living in Seattle, where he watched as his biological father, Joseph Creedon, lost his battle with AIDS.

Even then, his connections to the gay community were strong. "We lived in Seattle and he surrounded me with affluent members of Seattle's gay community who cultured me and treated me as their own child," Puckett remembers. "My father got very sick and before I knew it, he was gone."

He was homeless in Seattle for a few months before the courts placed him in the custody of his mother, who was living with Pittmann. Then tragedy struck again. "I was just getting comfortable, where I felt like life was stable again, and then Mom and Sue were gone," Puckett relays. "My home was gone. I changed schools and my friends were gone. I couldn't even talk about any of it."

The then-teenager bounced around among relatives and ended up living on his own by age 16, crashing at the homes of older teens who stole money from him, used his car and got him involved in a gang. They did drugs; they spray-painted graffiti and got into fights.

"Mostly we smoked a lot of pot, got drunk and talked a lot of shit," Puckett says.

But on the night of Nov. 9, 1995, he made the bad choice to follow along with his friends, and is now locked up for the rest of his life.

Puckett was over at a friend's house when one of the boys allegedly suggested they all go test out a new gun at an abandoned building in Detroit. Puckett wanted to stay at home, excited to instead spend his evening taking a girl he liked out on their first date.

That date never happened, as Puckett got roped into driving other gang members to Detroit to join others using the gun. On a pass around the block, he heard gunshots and sped away from the site.

The gunshots Puckett heard had been fired by Roger Cameron from the window of the other car, toward what court documents later identified as the apartment building where several rival gang members lived. He had shot 10 bullets at the building - but three of the bullets went into a parked car where 12-year-old Angel Lawrence and her mother had ducked down when they heard gunfire.

Angel Lawrence was shot in the head and died later that night at the hospital. The teens never realized that they had hit a little girl with their bullets.

"I finally learned what happened, that a child was killed," Puckett recalls. "I was sick, really sick."

Puckett wanted to help make things right, and spoke to the police immediately. "I went to a large map to the city and pointed out Roger's house and gave them names, numbers, and told them exactly what happened," he says. "I gave a statement and I held nothing back. I felt so horrible. I knew that pain all too well. I never thought anyone would get hurt, much less killed. I thought they were just talking shit, that they would fire off a few rounds in an alley and leave."

Originally, Puckett was not charged. When he was released from police custody he was at the top of the witness list. However, he was too afraid to testify and did not show up for court.

"There was talk about me being a snitch and I was scared," he explains. "I moved out of the city and got a job at Arbor Drugs and I tried to pretend like that gang life didn't exist. I had done to another family what James Brooks did to me when he killed my mothers. I destroyed a little girl's life. I couldn't face it, and I just knew that this was not me."

But despite other consistent testimonies, Puckett was arrested about a month later and charged with first-degree murder after refusing to testify against the shooter and the driver.

He was offered two plea deals - one with as little as six years in prison. But Puckett refused them both. "I was young and hard-headed," he remembers. "I believed that no jury in the world would convict me of (murder)."

Of all the parties involved that night, several were not charged with any crime, including people in the same vehicle as the shooter. Only three people would be punished for their roles in the death of Angel Lawrence: Cameron, who pulled the trigger, received a life sentence for first-degree murder. The driver of the car took a plea for six years and was released after serving four. And Puckett, who was not in the car, not on the scene and not in the same gang as the teens who planned the shooting, was also sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility for parole.

The road to redemption

Nearly 15 years later, Puckett sits in prison, wishing he could rewind time and make better choices. "This case changed me deeply," he tells Between The Lines in an interview from prison. "I feel if I had done something, said stop, not been such a wannabe or just said 'no,' this never would have happened."

The first few years behind bars were the roughest.

"I hated myself for years and wanted to die," he remembers. "If I could replace my life with (Angel Lawrence's), I would in a second. I was the one who had no family, no brothers or sisters, with no future at the time. Angel had her whole life in front of her and I will never leave that guilt behind. It took a long time to realize that the only way to ever begin to make it right was through good - by changing myself and one day using my story to help other kids from going down the same path that I went."

Since his incarceration, Josh has gotten his GED, a certificate in horticulture and a certificate in greenhouse management. He has risen to a management positions in horticulture programs and the hobby shop. He helps to facilitate anger management programs for other inmates and hopes to start a program where ex-cons can share their experiences with young people to help them avoid bad choices.

Prison has been hard for Puckett, but he has spent years finally getting the counseling he needed to get past the tragedies he experienced as a child, as well as the one that he was part of as a young adult. He has read a lot, and believes that he is ready to be part of the outside world.

"I'm determined to not just be a good man and be free, but also to make up, repair and give back for what I did," he says. "I can never fix it, but I can strive every day to brighten a life, give hope and show those around me that being angry and violent will never take their pain way."

Puckett tells his story from behind thick, impersonal walls in a place where his days are regulated and he works for less than a dollar a day. He sleeps on a thin cot in a room with one plastic pillow that he wraps in clothes to make more comfortable. He is allowed five visits a month, in a room where guards keep close watch to make sure that families don't sit too close to their imprisoned loved ones, or embrace for too long. He has stories of inmate violence and prisoner mistreatment, but is somehow still grateful for his experience.

"I needed to be locked up," he agrees. "I was an angry kid. I was mad at the world and stupid. If I didn't get locked up, who knows how much further down that path I would have gone. It took about five years of being locked up to even get that out of my system. I think 10 years was about the time I needed to be in to really understand myself, and what it's like to be a good man."

'All I can do is ask for mercy'

Since being tracked down by Pittmann-Puckett documentary director Alexander, Puckett's life has been filled with even more hope and determination.

The state of Michigan has begun giving an increasing number of commutations in order to free up space in the ever-crowding prison system, and Puckett's attorney is filing a request this month to have his case reviewed.

Support for his case has been overwhelming. "I've been blessed to have people come forward and support me. There is now a team of people out there who believe in me. They worked hard to put together a website, and they've been getting letters of support to go in my commutation packet."

Christine Ryan, an old high school friend of Puckett's who now lives in Washington with her husband and children, has taken the lead. "The team's focus has shifted from gaining public support to bringing awareness of Joshua's commutation attempt to Gov. Jennifer Granholm," explains Ryan. "With Granholm on her way out of office, it's important that we reach her soon."

A commutation is different than a pardon in that Granholm could choose to reduce Puckett's sentence from life without the possibility of parole to any amount of time deemed appropriate for the crime. This means that if Granholm decided that Puckett was rehabilitated, he could be released immediately.

Ryan has sought support from state Sen. Martha G. Scott, who has written a letter to Granholm on Puckett's behalf outlining his accomplishments and his responsibility in the crime, and asking that Granholm give the commutation request "serious consideration."

Carol M. Hogan, an attorney from Warren, also chimed in on Puckett's behalf. "I bring my 52 years of life experience to this situation," she wrote. "I think he's not a danger or threat to society ... . Forever is a disproportionate sentence for the crime of aiding and abetting in the commission of a crime. He has more than paid his debt to society ... (and) the continuance of his incarceration is a waste of human life, productivity and money."

"Joshua was to have gotten six to 15 years for that crime," adds Alexander, who is now helping Puckett in addition to doing the documentary about his mothers. "The crime should have been labeled as manslaughter, an accident that he had little to do with. Instead, he received life for being in a situation because he just wanted to be with people that he felt were his new family and because he refused to squeal on (them)."

Puckett has a growing network of support, including an aunt and uncle who he can live with upon release, and offers for volunteering and employment. If given parole, he says he will take advantage of all the classes and programs available to help him re-enter society.

"All I can do now is ask for mercy," Puckett said.

Those who are interested in learning more about Puckett's case can go to http://www.freejoshpuckett.com. Visitors can complete the e-mail form on the website and share their views with the Board of Parole and Commutation as well as Gov. Granholm. Although Puckett's commutation packet will be submitted in July, letters received after the submission will continue to be added to the file.

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