On Thursday, Gov. Tom Wolf commuted the life sentence of David Sheppard, who served 25 years in prison for his role as a lookout in a 1992 robbery in which an accomplice shot and killed a man.
But instead of being released, Sheppard is being transported directly from state prison to the Delaware County jail.
The reason? Delaware County prosecutors are pursuing a 1992 retail theft case against Sheppard, who is accused of stealing five pairs of jeans, together worth $324.95, from a Springfield store called Jeans West that long ago shut down.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who has advocated reviving the state’s long-broken commutation process, was angered by that decision.
“I’m absolutely speechless,” he said. “It’s stunning. Even if you’re Mr. Hard on Crime, this is ridiculous.”
Wolf, too, decried the prosecutors’ decision. “Mr. Sheppard has earned his freedom,” the governor said. “He has accepted responsibility, shown remorse, and served a quarter-century in prison despite never taking a life.”
But prosecutors in Delaware County say that’s not the point — and neither is the shoplifting charge. The issue, they say, is that the family of the shooting victim was not told of the possibility of commutation.
Sheppard was 29 when he took part in a robbery in Overbrook and his accomplice shot 64-year-old Thomas Brannan, owner of Love’s Pharmacy. His life sentence for murder was one of eight Wolf commuted Thursday — a striking number for a state in which only six people had received clemency in the two decades before he took office. It brings the total of lifers he’s released to 19, the most since Gov. Bob Casey left office in 1994.
The others who received clemency are Gervin L. Deaton, Eugene L. Grannison, Raymond R. Johnson, Antonio A. Mazzccua, David H. Moore, Oscar Pinto, and Mageline G. Stewart.
Some prosecutors have opposed the movement to increase access to clemency, and Sheppard’s case appeared to reveal one such fault line.
Delaware County District Attorney Katayoun M. Copeland, in a statement Friday, decried what she described as “the current climate of the criminal justice system: convicted felons are being empowered and extended leniency at the direct expense of victims and their families.”
In the Sheppard case, she said, state officials and the Board of Pardons did not notify the victim’s family — who are residents of Delaware County — that he was seeking to have his sentence commuted.
“The issue here is not about a shoplifting charge," Copeland said, “it is the complete failure of the criminal justice system to give victims and their families a voice.”
Sheppard’s lawyer in the theft case had argued that Delaware County violated his right to a speedy trial by pursuing the decades-old charges.
Deputy District Attorney Daniel McDevitt said in an earlier interview that prosecutors considered Sheppard a fugitive, his years in prison notwithstanding. “It was his responsibility to come to court and let us know where he is,” McDevitt said.
Sheppard’s public defender, Max Orenstein, filed a petition Friday seeking his immediate release on unsecured bail. He said Sheppard’s detention “serves only to deprive [him] of his liberty in violation of the federal and state constitutional guarantees of due process, bail and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.”
Incoming District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer, who was elected in November after running a reform campaign, said Friday that he had limited information about the case.
“I’m looking forward to reviewing his case and trying to understand why anybody thinks it’s in the interest of justice and the best use of public resources to hold this man accountable for a crime that happened 27 years ago,” he said.
“There has to be a reason," he added. "It can’t just be that we’re being vindictive.”
Wolf noted that Sheppard, upon his release from state prison, would spend a year in a community corrections center and then be under court supervision for the rest of his life.
He called Copeland’s to prosecute the theft charge “simply wrong and misguided.”
“This cruel philosophy on criminal justice creates more problems than it solves,” the governor said. “Regardless, the voters of Delaware County chose a new leader and she should respect the will of the voters.”