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Murderer ends pursuit of UAA social degree
Anchorage Daily News


April 05, 2007

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Micheal Purcell, an aspiring social worker with a murder in his past, is giving up his bid to earn a bachelor's degree in social work at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

But though his record has kept him from the UAA program, Purcell said he's not abandoning his goal and hopes to apply to other schools.




"I just gotta keep trying," said Purcell, who will turn 40 this year.

A deal finalized this week ends his court fight to force open the School of Social Work doors. Having lost in Anchorage Superior Court, Purcell has agreed not to appeal that decision to the state Supreme Court.

He also agreed not to reapply to UAA's social work program for five years. In turn, the university won't go after him for $3,500 in legal fees assessed against him by the Superior Court judge.

Purcell and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska argued that he was rehabilitated after serving 20 years in prison and deserved a shot at turning his youthful bad choices into good. They lost that round last year.

Purcell's past is a wrenching litany of trouble: Abandoned by his father even before he was born. Abused as a child. Years in foster care.

Purcell has never used his childhood as an excuse, though maybe it's a partial explanation for what followed:

In July 1984, at age 16, he shot and killed an Anchorage convenience store clerk during a robbery. He and his accomplice killed the man because he knew who they were, having befriended the boys during their visits to the store.

Purcell served his time and earned his high school equivalency diploma and college credits while in prison.

One terrible incident doesn't define who he is, he says.

He enrolled at UAA, earned mainly good grades, became president of the Social Work Club, did volunteer work.

But he hit the wall when he tried for acceptance into the social work degree program. Twice a university faculty panel rejected his application based on his murder conviction. In 2005, an academic review committee and college dean upheld the decision.

The ACLU took his case to court, arguing that UAA should not be allowed to reject him automatically and should be required to evaluate whether he has reformed. Prisoners in Alaska have a constitutional right to rehabilitation, they said.

In October, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled in favor of the university. The right to rehabilitation doesn't apply once prisoners are released from custody, she said. Even if he were entitled, since he's still on parole, a degree in social work isn't the type of rehabilitation program envisioned by the Alaska Constitution, she wrote.

"We were not surprised to lose at the trial court level," ACLU staff attorney Jason Brandeis said Tuesday. A novel interpretation of the Constitution often is rejected by lower courts, he said.

Eventually, Purcell lost his will to keep pushing. There was no certainty as to what would happen next. Even if the Supreme Court told the university to consider whether Purcell had been rehabilitated, UAA could decide he wasn't reformed enough and keep him out of the program, Brandeis said.

"It's sort of to the point I need to look at other alternatives instead of wasting more time trying to fight them," Purcell said.

Now he's in the real world. He works long hours as manager of a pizza place. His on-again, off-again relationship with his ex-wife is back on. He's been struggling with some health issues - pneumonia and frostbite - and did poorly in his university classes last fall. He didn't enroll for spring semester, but he still has hope of earning a doctorate in social work so he can study social services and make programs better.

"He didn't think they would ever let him in," Brandeis said. "He really just wants to move forward with his life."

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by Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,

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