LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Three days before Christmas 2010, a Michigan inmate got a remarkable gift: Gov. Jennifer Granholm said she would commute his life sentence for first-degree murder, ensuring his release after two decades in prison for setting up a robbery that led to the fatal stabbing of a co-worker.
But Matthew Makowski's dream of freedom was dashed within 48 hours. The governor, who was just days from leaving office, got cold feet and rescinded her own order after the victim's family protested. A warden delivered the stunning news to Makowski. Instead of going home, he would remain behind bars as inmate No. 198702.
Nearly two years later, Granholm's reversal has touched off an extraordinary legal challenge from a professor and students at the University of Michigan law school. They argue that the governor's decision to commute the sentence was final as soon as she signed and filed the document.
There is no history of an about-face like Granholm's. The case, now at the state appeals court, is an unprecedented test of constitutional power granted to Michigan governors.
"She got very bad advice," said Charles Levin, a former state Supreme Court justice who supports Makowski. "There's no place that says she can undo an act of this kind. It doesn't exist. This is a very unusual story."
In response to the lawsuit, the state attorney general's office said courts can't review how a Michigan governor uses constitutional authority to change an inmate's sentence. And even if courts do, the attorney general says, Granholm was free to change her mind, especially since Makowski never had a commutation certificate in his hands, 110 miles away at prison.
"Without delivery," Assistant Attorney General A. Peter Govorchin said in a court filing, "the commutation was not complete."
Behind the dispute are the tragic events that put Makowski in prison and the sharp feelings that still exist nearly 25 years later.
In 1988, he was 20 years old and working at a fitness center in suburban Detroit with another young man, Pietro "Pete" Puma, 19. There is no dispute that Makowski came up with a plan to have Puma robbed away from the health club. But the confrontation spun out of control when Puma was fatally stabbed while defending himself.
Makowski wasn't present for the attack and had no idea that one of the robbers had a knife. Nonetheless, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without a chance at parole because he had hatched the ambush.
"Truly from the bottom of my heart, I am sorry, you know, for all the things that I did. I can never make any excuse or justifications for it," Makowski, now 45, told the Michigan parole board in 2010.
At that time, he had had only two misconduct violations during 22 years in prison. Supporters said Makowski has become a devout Roman Catholic and led many inmates to Christianity.
"There is nothing hardened about him," said Beth Kjerrumgaard, who holds Catholic services for inmates. "I'm very confident that God has a different plan for him rather than being in prison for life."
In November 2010, the parole board voted 8-7 to recommend the governor commute Makowski's life sentence and allow his release. Granholm agreed on Dec. 22. Makowski's lawyer called the decision "courageous."
But Puma's siblings were outraged after reading an Associated Press story about the case. They didn't even know Makowski was being considered for release and had never received notice of his parole board hearing. Puma's parents are deceased, and no family members were registered with the state Corrections Department.
Two days later on Christmas Eve, with a week left in office, Granholm said she was yanking the commutation, although the document had already been signed, stamped with the state seal and filed with the secretary of state. The governor's attorney, Suzanne Sonneborn, personally retrieved the records and had them destroyed.
The Corrections Department had not mailed a commutation certificate to Makowski, apparently because of a thin staff around the holidays. Parole board Chairwoman Barbara Sampson was greatly relieved.
"Please return all of the certificates to Suzanne Sonneborn asap! Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!" she said in a Dec. 27 email.
Makowski did not respond to a letter from the AP requesting an interview at a prison in Coldwater. His mother, Patricia Makowski, declined to comment, as did Granholm, now a cable TV host.
"It has been a long road, and it seems like the light at the end of the tunnel was almost there, and then it was snuffed out," said Kjerrumgaard, who described Makowski as "numb" and "devastated" in the days after the swift reversal.
Paul Reingold, a professor at the University of Michigan law school, often handles litigation on behalf of prisoners, especially in civil rights matters. In a court filing, he said Granholm had no authority to rescind her action simply because Puma's family protested.
"There was no fraud in the commutation process," Reingold said. "No one has alleged any misstatement or misrepresentation in the petition, in the supporting documents or in the public hearing. ... The allotted time for the prosecution's and the family's objections to be heard was long past, and there is no claim that any of the statutory procedures were not properly followed."
No date for arguments has been set. Puma's brother, Anthony Puma, said he was unaware of Makowski's legal challenge.
"He tore the Puma family apart. Life without parole," Puma said, "is supposed to be life without parole."
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