For Janet Prater, a passion for justice started young. The assistant professor of criminal justice at Bemidji State Uni- versity became an attorney in part to fulfill the dreams of her father, whose law career was cut short when he died of a brain tumor. Besides leaving her with a possible career direction, he left her with volumes of his poetry and writings, an interest that fueled her decision to earn an undergradu- ate degree in English before pursuing law. In turn, she points to her maternal grandmother, a writer and a teacher, as the person who inspired her mid-life transition to the classroom.
Early in her law career, however, a piv- otal murder case further shaped her perspectives and deepened her pas- sions. Prater received a call asking her to meet with Jeanette Smith, a 47-year- old woman who had been accused of fatally stabbing her estranged and abu- sive husband after he had threatened to kill her. Practicing law in Detroit,
MI, at the time, she and civil rights lawyer Dean Robb agreed to represent Smith. From the beginning, they felt strongly that Smith should not be sent to prison.
“This case really opened my eyes,” says Prater about the plight of domestic abuse victims and the shortcomings of the legal system that should protect them.
The 1979 case was groundbreak- ing. At the time, women who killed their abusive partners customarily pleaded guilty or employed insanity as a defense. Prater and Robb decided instead to pursue a strategy of self- defense. They built their case over months of research and with signifi- cant assistance from judges, attorneys, jury selection experts, police officers, and mental health practitioners. They also relied on the testimonies of Mr. Smith’s former wives. Their accounts of his horrific behavior helped jurors understand why Smith, fearing for her life, acted in self-defense.
“Jeanette Smith was very lucky,” recalls Prater, who had much to celebrate when Smith was acquitted. “These women’s self-defense cases are extremely hard – hard fought and hard to win.”
For Prater, the Smith case ignited a desire to prevent domestic abuse and better defend those who fight back in self-defense. A practicing attorney since 1976, she has worked at every level of the civil and criminal court sys- tems in Michigan. Following the Smith case, she represented numerous other clients accused of fighting back against or killing abusive partners or family members. She’s typically pursued a self-defense strategy.
From her experiences, Prater also rec- ognized the need for better education among law enforcement practitioners who work with domestic abuse vic- tims. In the early 1990s, she created an undergraduate course on domestic violence and has since taught law and
law-related courses at the undergradu- ate, graduate, and law school levels. Inspired by her classroom experience, she returned to school, earned a mas- ter’s degree in counselor education in 2005, and accepted a faculty position at Bemidji State the following year.
Prater is a member of the Michigan Bar Association and has served on numer- ous state-level committees, including the Special Committee on Domestic Violence. This summer, she worked on a federal initiative to better train law enforcement officials about domes- tic violence, including elder abuse. In Bemidji, she helped launch a domes- tic violence awareness conference last spring and works with the Native American community and others inter- ested in preventing this abuse.
As Prater’s career has evolved, the Smith case remains a defining expe- rience in her life, one that keeps her focused on issues of domestic vio- lence. What she learned from the case changed her life and made her work meaningful. Whether it’s training for a federal domestic violence program or preparing her Bemidji State students to become the next generation of crimi- nal justice practitioners, Prater knows her work is important.
“one of the beautiful things about this position is that it brings together all of the things that I can do well,” says Prater, who particularly enjoys using her counseling skills as an adviser to about 50 Bemidji State students. She encourages students to stay true to themselves in whatever career path they choose and to be open to adventure.
“I don’t try to please everyone, which has been important to my success,” says Prater, who relies on her intu- ition, as well as her intellect, to guide her in life. “overall, I’ve had my own style and approach to things, and that’s something I advocate with my stu- dents.”
Bemidji State University