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No way to live, no way to die

It's tough to get passionate about a case involving two drunk transients. But one of them ended up dead, so here we are.

This was the gist of the prosecutor's opening remarks in the case of the State v. Richard Lee Pruitt, a murder trial.

The prosecutor's job is to seek justice within our legal system, and to call it like it is. Jackson County Senior Deputy District Attorney Tim Barnack simply said aloud what a lot of people think; maybe even what some of the jury members were thinking.

Family members of the victim, Darin Lynn Drake, attended the week-long trial. Photos depicted their loved one's naked body on the autopsy table, his bruises dissected by the state medical examiner. The bloody evidence of a brutal attack was projected onto a big screen in the darkened courtroom so the jury could witness the nature and extent of Drake's injuries.

Drake's niece looked away. His sister didn't flinch. She viewed every picture. Then she went outside to smoke a cigarette with shaking hands. Her brother wasn't perfect, she said. But this was no way for anyone to die — drunk, beaten and alone on the side of Interstate 5.

Pruitt's mother could not bear to watch the images. The well-dressed lady sat outside the courtroom, holding onto her cane, holding back her tears. During a break, she quietly told the victim's family members she was sorry for their loss.

Pruitt testified he'd slept in the doorway of his childhood home (now a tax office) in downtown Central Point on the night Drake died. He remembered falling from a backyard tree there when he was a 3-year-old and breaking his arm.

His mother couldn't believe he remembered their old home. Awaiting the jury's verdict, she said she didn't know what happened. Only that she loves her son very much.

"Just like every mother does," she said.

My mind flashed back to another murder. Another killing between two lost transients. My nephew died in a back alley in a seedy Medford neighborhood in 2005. He was stabbed to death by a man suffering from schizophrenia. Both men had recently been released from the psychiatric unit at a local hospital. No one told us.

Like the man who killed him, my nephew struggled with serious mental illness. He, too, battled demons and addictions. In and out of treatment facilities for decades, he was never able to get the long-term inpatient care that might have saved him — it simply wasn't available. In the end, illness and drug and alcohol abuse destroyed the brilliant mind he'd once used to earn a law degree.

His killer, who refused to plead insanity, is serving a 10-year sentence for first-degree manslaughter.

Life is about choices. And if you choose to continually lie down on the tracks of life, sooner or later a train will run over you. Right?

Trouble is, nobody in his right mind chooses to lie down on railroad tracks. While some people's lives look like a series of bad choices, closer inspection might show them tied to the rails by mental illness and chemical addiction. And, try as they might, they can't undo the knots.

Family and friends, bound by love, can only watch for oncoming trains. Then, if the worst happens, they must find a way to deal with the aftermath.

Barnack knows this. He also knows everyone — even the lowliest transient — has a backstory.

"No one grows up saying, 'Hey! I want to be a transient,'" Barnack said during a post-trial postmortem.

On Feb. 8, the jury found Pruitt guilty of manslaughter in the second degree. On Wednesday he was sentenced to more than six years in state prison for the Measure 11 crime. Pruitt will also pay for Drake's funeral costs.

"You don't win a case like this," said Barnack. "There are no winners. You just have to hold someone accountable."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.