For years, the commutation of life sentences was a commonly used tool to reduce a life sentence in Pennsylvania, reported In Justice Today. Milton Shapp, who was the Democratic governor from 1971–79, commuted 251 sentences. As the war on crime ratcheted up, however, the number of commutations plummeted. Republican Dick Thornburgh, in office from 1979–87 and later picked as President Reagan’s attorney general, commuted just seven. His Democratic successor, Bob Casey, commuted 27. And commutations all but disappeared after 1994, when Governor Casey commuted the life sentence of Reginald McFadden, who went on to kill two and brutally rape another shortly thereafter.
“You met him, and you look into his eyes, you knew that he was deranged,” Tyrone Werts, one of just five lifers to have their sentence commuted under Governor Ed Rendell, said of McFadden when I was reporting my 2014 profile of Smith. “The system saw fit to let him go. But if they would have came around to different prisons [and] said, ‘What do you think about McFadden? You think that he’s a good candidate for commutation?’ ‘Hell no, [don’t] let that crazy motherfucker out.’”
Why, during a law and order era, was such a seemingly horrible candidate for a commutation one of the few to be released? The one person who voted “no,” then Pennsylvania Attorney General Ernie Preate, told me that McFadden was released in part because of his cooperation with correctional authorities during a 1989 uprising at the State Correctional Institute at Camp Hill. Back then, approving a recommendation of commutation to the governor required just a majority vote. That would soon change.
McFadden’s atrocities humiliated then Lt. Governor Mark Singel, who ran in 1994 to succeed Casey as governor and voted “yes” on his commutation application. Republican Tom Ridge beat Singel, running on a tough-on-crime campaign pitched to the maximally punitive political environment of the mid-1990s. George W. Bush later appointed Ridge to be his Department of Homeland Security secretary, calling him “a man of compassion who has seen what evil can do.”
After taking the governor’s office, Ridge launched a special session on crime, and legislators sent voters a successful referendum on commutations: from there on out, the Board of Pardons seat once claimed by a lawyer would go to a victim’s representative instead; more importantly, a commutation recommendation to the governor for those sentenced to life in prison would require a unanimous, and not majority, vote.To read more CLICK HERE