It has been 40 years since Helene Pruszynski was killed, but for her family and friends, it might as well have been yesterday.
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That was the theme of a July 1 sentencing for the man who pleaded guilty to raping and killing the young woman.
Pruszynski was kidnapped Jan. 16, 1980 after getting off an RTD bus in Englewood. The 21-year-old had recently traveled to Colorado from Massachusetts for an internship with KHOW radio. She had dreams of becoming a journalist. The morning after her disappearance, she was found dead in a field in Douglas County.
Deputies from the Douglas County Sheriff's Office arrested James Curtis Clanton, 62, in December of last year after cracking the case using genetic genealogy. After he was arrested, he admitted to the crime and pleaded guilty in February.
On July 1, he was sentenced by Douglas County District Court Judge Theresa Slade to life in prison. He has a chance to receive parole after serving at least 20 years, she said.
During the hearing, Pruszynski's loved ones spoke about the impact the crime had on their lives.
“I cannot find the words to accurately express the pain, the anguish, heartache and deep sadness my family felt that day,” Pruszynski's sister Janet Johnson said. “As the days and years passed, it never got any easier.”
While some of Pruszynski's loved ones were able to travel to Colorado for the sentencing, the hearing was conducted virtually due to precautions around the COVID-19 pandemic. About 80 people joined the virtual courtroom and 13 people testified during the hearing.
“She was deprived of all she may have accomplished. The world was deprived of what she would have contributed to make it a better place.” said Monique Shire, a college friend of Pruszynski's. “For me, the brutal act of taking her life is unforgivable ... my heart will be forever broken so it will now have to suffice that the person who killed my beautiful friend is finally being brought to justice.”
Many of the testimonies included memories of Helene — her smile, warmth, kindness and the sense of ease that she provided to all who met with her. While every person testifying expressed a deep pain felt from losing Pruszynski, many also spoke about the love and light they still feel from having met her.
“While my heart was broken on the day I heard of Helene's death and again when I heard the person who took her away from us was captured,” said Rosemarie Bruno, a friend of Pruszynski's from college, “in the cracks of my broken heart there are bright rays of light and love and joy from Helene that illuminate these spaces of my heart.”
At some points, those testifying spoke directly to or about Clanton.
“For the convicted murderer sitting in his jail cell today, for overpowering and brutally taking the life of a gorgeous, innocent … woman, a very different fate awaits his soul,” said Mike Johnson, a high school friend of Pruszynski's. “After he eventually dies, instead of being lifted to heaven, he will descend to hell ... good luck with that.”
Throughout the hearing, Clanton frequently wiped away tears, put his face in his hands and showed other signs of emotion. He chose not to speak during the sentencing and instead his lawyer, Daniel Cunny, made a brief statement on his behalf.
“As the years have passed, the sense of remorse Mr. Clanton feels for his act has only increased. In the immediate years following the murder, Mr. Clanton prayed for Ms. Pruszynski and the harm he caused her.” Cunny said. “Mr. Clanton wants Ms. Pruszynski's family ... to know that he's sorry, but those words are probably meaningless based on the pain that he caused.”
After hearing the testimonies, Slade gave her sentence and accompanying remarks.
“There's absolutely no way you can understand or comprehend the pain that has been expressed today,” she said to Clanton. “But I do believe that you are sincere in your regret.”
The judge encouraged Clanton to take his life into his own hands and take any chance possible to do good and be a better person.
“It doesn't matter that this happened 40 years ago other than the fact that, Mr. Clanton, you did get some form of a life,” she said. “It seems unjust ... what you do with the rest of your life, there are opportunities for rehabilitation.”
She echoed a poem, written by Pruszynski, that a friend of the young woman's had read during testimony.
“`Let us live today with every hopeful promise of tomorrow,'” she said. “It seems to me, that the way you all have described (Helene) that if she were able to join us today, in spite of what happened to her, she would probably, Mr. Clanton, still be giving you that message.”
In interviews following the hearing, Pruszynski's family and friends who traveled to Colorado expressed relief at having finished the hearing.
“We're just so appreciative of everything. It's been 40 years and they didn't give up,” said friend Kitsey Snow, about investigators. “Justice would be Helene being here, so it doesn't even feel like justice. But I'm glad that he is away and not going to hurt anybody else.”
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