LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Michigan's Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned one of Jennifer Granholm's last acts as governor and gave an inmate an opportunity for release after 25 years in prison.
The court ruled 6-0 that Granholm exceeded her constitutional authority in 2010 when she first commuted the life sentence of Matthew Makowski, then changed her mind when relatives of a murder victim complained.
It's an unprecedented case in Michigan. Lower courts let Granholm's decision stand, but the Supreme Court said she went too far.
"The language of the (state) Constitution confers only the power to grant commutations. The fact that the Constitution specifically provides that the Governor may grant a commutation implies that the Governor's power is limited only to that ability," Justice Michael Cavanagh wrote for the majority.
One of Makowski's lawyers, Paul Reingold, noted that the court said there are constitutional limits to the governor's power, "and it's the job of the court to say the governor exceeded those limits."
Tuesday's Supreme Court ruling sends Makowski's commutation back to the state parole board, according to Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan.
Makowski was convicted of first-degree murder for arranging the robbery of a Dearborn health club co-worker in 1988. Makowski didn't know the robbers would be armed and wasn't present when Pietro "Pete" Puma was fatally stabbed.
The state attorney general's office defended Granholm, arguing that courts can't review how a Michigan governor uses constitutional authority to change an inmate's sentence. And even if courts do, state attorneys said, Granholm was free to change her mind, especially since Makowski never had a commutation certificate in his hands, 110 miles away at prison.
But the court said the governor's attempt to revoke a valid commutation was not permitted because her authority over the prisoner's commutation had passed.
"Once plaintiff's sentence was commuted, he was transferred to the jurisdiction of the parole board and his sentence was no longer one of life without the possibility of parole," the order said.
A spokeswoman for Granholm declined to comment Tuesday on the court's ruling.
Makowski had filed an application in January 2010 to have his sentence commuted. Neither Puma's family nor the prosecutor's office appeared at an October 2010 public hearing on the request. The next month, the state parole board recommended 8-7 that Granholm change Makowski's no-parole sentence, a step that would have cleared the path for his eventual release on parole.
He told the board he was sorry for Puma's death. Supporters said Makowski, now 47, has become a devout Roman Catholic behind bars and led many inmates to Christianity.
Granholm signed the commutation on Dec. 22, 2010, and sent it to the Secretary of State where it was signed and the Great Seal was affixed. The following day, the governor's office received a call from an attorney representing the victim's family, which opposed the commutation. Granholm then wrote to the parole board chair directing a halt to the commutation proceedings and stating her intent to revoke the order.
The state parole board next meets June 13, and Marlan said he assumed the case would be on the agenda. The current board members were not among the 15 that made the 2010 recommendation.
"He could be paroled, but whether or not this parole board will parole him is something we'll have to wait and see," Marlan told The Associated Press. "That's just the way the process works. The parole board members now may have a different opinion than the parole board at that time."
Any decision the current board makes will not require the issue going to current Gov. Rick Snyder, he added.
Makowski is being held at the Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, about 100 miles west of Detroit.
Williams reported from Detroit. Associated Press writer Ed White in Detroit contributed.
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