Thirteen years ago Janice Brown and Tammy Torres were drawn together by the sudden, violent deaths of their loved ones.
On a spring afternoon in 2009, a silver Pontiac Grand Prix driven by a man who, with an accomplice, had just stolen a motorcycle at gunpoint, barreled through the intersection of Third and Annsbury Streets in Feltonville, crashed onto a sidewalk and into a group of young people, killing four of them.
Torres lost her 7-year-old daughter, Gina. Brown’s daughter, Latoya Smith, 22, also was killed, along with Smith’s 1-year-old daughter, Rimanee, and Brown’s step-granddaughter, Alicia Griffin, 6.
The driver was convicted of four counts of second-degree murder, along with an accomplice, and both men were sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Police say Donta Craddock and Ivan Rodriguez were fleeing the scene of the robbery and being pursued by police when Craddock, 21, plowed the Pontiac into the crowd and killed the women’s relatives. Rodriguez, 23, was on the stolen motorcycle, heading for his home in Hunting Park. Even though Rodriguez was not at the scene of the fatal crash, prosecutors argued that he shared responsibility for the crime because the carnage was part of a chain of events that began with the gunpoint robbery.
Now, 10 years after that guilty verdict, Rodriguez will soon be released from prison. District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office has asked a judge to overturn his four murder convictions in exchange for a guilty plea to robbery and a sentence of 10 to 20 years and a term of probation until May 2031.In November, Common Pleas Court Judge J. Scott O’Keefe granted a joint request from the DA’s Office and Rodriguez’s attorney to approve that outcome. .
Because Rodriguez has already been behind bars for nearly 13 years, he is eligible for parole and will be released from prison soon.
Krasner’s office says Rodriguez’s punishment was too harsh, particularly since he was not driving the car that killed the four and did not wield the gun during the robbery.
Torres, for one, is reeling.
“I’m not sure how the DA came to the conclusion that this murderer should walk free. He was what started this series of events, this whole nightmare,” said Torres, who now lives in Florida. “Had he and his codefendant not decided to steal that motorcycle, none of this would have happened. He is just as guilty as the person driving the car that murdered three children and one mother.”
Brown, by contrast, said she had made peace with the outcome. Sitting in her living room and wiping tears from her face, she said she forgave Rodriguez and Craddock a long time ago.
“I never thought that Ivan should have been charged with murder, nor been sentenced to life without parole. These two men made choices which they never thought would have cost the lives of my loved ones,” she said as her husband sat beside her offering support. “I don’t want him to carry that burden thinking that I hate him. We can forgive, but we will never forget.”
The path to freedom for Rodriguez was long. Between 2012 and 2015, his appeals of his conviction were denied in Common Pleas Court, twice in Superior Court, and in the state Supreme Court.
His fate seemed sealed. In Pennsylvania, life means life.
At the conclusion of the 2012 trial, the jury had no doubt about either man’s guilt, said Florence J. Thompkins, an alternate juror.
“At the time, I didn’t think either one of them should ever get out of jail because the facts that were presented pretty much showed them as guilty,” Thompkins said in a recent interview.
Some jurors wept when Assistant District Attorney Jude Conroy described how the out-of-control car tore into the crowd. And Police Officer Abraham Matos-Wild broke down on the witness stand describing how he had been chasing the car, lost it, and finally caught up to it ― flipped on its side, amid a jumble of broken bodies.
Craddock was paralyzed from the waist down after the crash.
Conroy told the jury the crash was the inevitable outcome of an unbroken chain of events that began when the two men stole the motorcycle at gunpoint 1.7 miles away.
“If you want the benefits and advantages [of committing a robbery], you have to accept the consequences and responsibilities,” Conroy said.
In Pennsylvania, second-degree murder is a killing that happens as a result of a person committing, attempting to commit, or fleeing from an act of robbery, burglary, kidnapping, rape, or arson. The punishment is a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
In this case, Krasner, a former civil rights and criminal defense attorney, finds that excessive, said his spokesperson, Jane Roh.
“Felony murder sentences for individuals who are not actually responsible for killing another person are an example of extreme punishments that led to the mass incarceration of mostly Black, brown, and poor people in Pennsylvania,” she said in an email.
“Mr. Rodriguez received the same life without parole sentence as Donta Craddock, the person who actually led police on the chase that ended in those tragic killings. This District Attorney’s Office seeks justice in all matters, including those resolved in the past. A re-negotiated plea that will reduce Mr. Rodriguez’s sentence is appropriate under the law and considering the facts of this case,” Roh added.
In July, Krasner’s office teamed up with Rodriguez’s attorney, Jennifer Bretschneider, to ask the judge to release him.
“While the evidence is clear that [Rodriguez] is responsible for the robbery,” said a joint filing, “the evidence is not clear that he is responsible for the tragic death of the decedents, which occurred during [Craddock’s] flight from police” while Rodriguez was not at the scene.
They also contended that Rodriguez’s trial lawyer, Rania Major, should have challenged the prosecution theory that there had been no break in the chain of events that led to the deaths and that failing to do that constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.
In an interview, Major said she established at trial that Craddock fled from police not because of the robbery but because he feared arrest on an outstanding warrant.
Craddock told the panel he left the robbery scene believing he had not been followed. By the time the officer tried to pull him over, Craddock said, he was thinking about the warrant for his arrest for not returning to the Summit Academy juvenile placement facility, where he did not like the treatment.
In requesting that Rodriguez’s murder convictions be overturned, Krasner’s office and Bretschneider also asked the judge to take into consideration that he was only 20 years old at the time of the crimes. They also emphasized that he did not point the gun during the robbery and that he was not driving the car when it crashed.
“Mr. Rodriguez has always accepted full responsibility for the robbery charge and his conviction for that crime stands,” Bretschneider said. “This is a just and fair result in a tragic case.”
Torres, however, said she cannot understand how the District Attorney’s Office could abandon its position that Rodriguez shares responsibility for the deaths of her daughter and the three other victims.
“After hearing about this I lost it for a while,” she said in an interview. “My emotions! I’m so frustrated. I thought we won.”
Brown, for her part, said her religious faith is helping her heal and to forgive Rodriguez.
She shared a letter that he wrote to her in September before he was granted parole.
“I can’t help but wonder how you and your family may be feeling while dealing with this pandemic. As I sit here in this cell all I can find myself thinking about is how I can find a way to offer my support and give back to you and those I’ve hurt with my actions,” he wrote.
Said Brown: “I’m not judge or jury. I’d just like to tell Ivan that I understand his pain. I believe everyone deserves a second chance, especially if they did time.”