Thursday, September 12, 2019

Reform minded Lt. Governor will consider 21 lifers for clemency in Pennsylvania

The year was 1988, and that lieutenant governor, Mark Singel, would oversee the release of just 27 of the state’s lifers before one of them, Reginald McFadden, went on a violent crime spree that left three people dead, ended Singel’s run for governor, and extinguished hopes for commutation in the state.
Now, three decades later, Inge’s plea for clemency is finally before the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons again, this time in the hands of another reform-minded lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, who is set on restoring second chances, particularly for those sentenced to life in prison who did not actually take a life themselves, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“We need to reevaluate and ask ourselves as a community, how much is enough?" Fetterman said in an interview. "Is that 25 years? Thirty years? Thirty-five? Forty? We have inmates in our system who have done 40 years and never taken a life directly. I think it’s critical that we examine that and, when it merits it, make sure we give them another chance to rebuild their lives and contribute to society.”
That commitment is evident in public hearings set to begin Wednesday for the largest number of lifers up for commutation that anyone can recall: 21 men and women, all of whom have served decades in prison and are recommended by the state Department of Corrections for release.
As well, Fetterman is backing a constitutional amendment to roll back the requirement that commutations be recommended unanimously by the five-member Board of Pardons — a rule put in place as officials were reckoning with the deadly error of releasing McFadden. State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, a Republican from southwestern Pennsylvania, and Sen. Larry Farnese, a Philadelphia Democrat, are poised to introduce legislation to ease it back to a four-to-one vote, which would still be a higher bar than the three-to-two majority required in the pre-McFadden era. (To take effect, the measure would have to pass in two successive legislative sessions and then be approved by voters.)
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To Bartolotta, the decision to require a unanimous vote was “an emotional reaction” — with enormous ripple effects, creating a backlog as long as three years in commutation applications as lifers are denied clemency over and over again. There are now more than 5,000 lifers in Pennsylvania. “It’s not increasing public safety. It’s not streamlining the process. It has basically just slammed the door shut on cases that should otherwise be considered,” she said.
Farnese said he saw the importance of the reform in the case of William Smith, who was denied commutation twice by a four-to-one vote before he was finally released earlier this year at age 77. Attorney General Joshua Shapiro, the only elected official besides the lieutenant governor on the Board of Pardons, had initially opposed Smith’s release, but relented after learning the District Attorney and victim’s family did not object.
Farnese said he believes the proposed reform will take the “political considerations out of it.”
“The folks up for commutation generally they’ve served 30 years in state prison. They’ve worked extremely hard to improve themselves. They take responsibility for their crimes. They become mentors and teachers that help other individuals rehabilitate,” he said. "When these mentors and teachers go up for commutation and they’re not getting it, it hurts the overall morale. We need to give people hope. That’s what this process is all about."
For now, the 21 applicants up for review will still need unanimous support to be considered by the governor for clemency.
They include both individuals convicted of first-degree murder, which is intentional killing, and those found guilty of second-degree or “felony” murder, a charge applied to any individual who participates in a felony that results in death. Among those second-degree cases are Michael Helwig, a Pottstown man who was involved in a 1982 attempted robbery in which a codefendant shot and killed a man outside a pancake house; Thomas Schilk, who tied up a man in his apartment and took the man’s wallet, but was not present when the man fell from a third-floor window and died in 1984; and David Sheppard, who was convicted in a 1992 robbery of an Overbrook pharmacy in which a codefendant shot and killed the pharmacist.
In the 1960s, when there were fewer than 500 lifers incarcerated and commutation was more routine, it was not unusual for a dozen or more to be considered at once. In recent years, however, the Board of Pardons has allowed only a handful of cases to advance to public hearings.
While Fetterman’s predecessor as lieutenant governor, Mike Stack, also advocated for second chances in his role as chairman of the Board of Pardons, he made little progress. By the time he left office at the end of 2018, voted out after a series of scandals, he declared the commutation system “broken.”
But Gov. Tom Wolf has now commuted a total of 11 life sentences — the highest total since Gov. Bob Casey Sr. in the ’90s. And Fetterman is taking a different course from Stack, who at times battled with Attorney General Joshua Shapiro over board decisions, most publicly in the case of William Smith. Fetterman’s plan is to build consensus: Rather than forcing the issue of any given vote, he intends to hold under advisement any applicants who don’t yet have unanimous support so he can fulfill any missing requirements or satisfy any lingering concerns.
In response to an interview request, Shapiro’s office provided a statement emphasizing his commitment to second chances: "I give careful consideration to each case that comes before us and make decisions on a case-by-case basis.”
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