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Bucks man imprisoned 30 years says DNA can clear him of murder. The DA won’t run the test.

John Brookins has maintained he is innocent of the brutal killing of Sheila Ginsberg, 58, in her Bristol Township home 30 years ago. He’s now being considered for clemency.

Karen Brookins, wife of John Brookins, points to their wedding photo from State Correctional Institution Phoenix inside her home in Levittown.
Karen Brookins, wife of John Brookins, points to their wedding photo from State Correctional Institution Phoenix inside her home in Levittown.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

For 30 years, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has held the position that John Brookins is a killer who fatally stabbed 58-year-old Sheila Ginsberg in her Bristol Township home just days before Christmas 1990. A jury agreed, and he was sentenced to life without parole.

Brookins has maintained that he is an innocent man — and that his fingerprints were at the scene only because he walked in on Ginsberg’s daughter committing the deadly assault.

DNA tests could get to the truth, Brookins has long argued. But the Bucks County district attorney has refused to run them.

Now, Brookins — a meditation and yoga instructor with a diploma in horticulture and an unmarred prison record — is being considered for commutation by the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons. A public hearing is expected Thursday. And the board’s chairman, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, wants those DNA test results to inform the board’s decision.

“We just want to know the truth,” he said. “It comes down to, for me, why wouldn’t you test the evidence? And what’s the rationale for constantly paying taxpayer dollars to fight giving a DNA test for a man who certainly hasn’t gotten away with murder.”

Although the board is, as Fetterman put it, “in the mercy business” — meaning its role is not to determine guilt or innocence — he sees Brookins’ as that rare case where conclusive answers are within reach.

» READ MORE: Lt. Gov. Fetterman wants to use clemency to free those wrongfully convicted. But the Board of Pardons is pushing back.

For the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office, though, Brookins’ claim “defies credulity.”

Bucks County Chief Deputy District Attorney Jill Graziano sent the Board of Pardons a blistering letter calling Brookins a serial liar and manipulator. “Now comes Mr. Brookins’ ultimate manipulation: to convince this Board to vote in favor of his petition for clemency based on his far-fetched claim that he is innocent.”

In that letter and in previous court filings, the Graziano and Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub said the DNA test would prove nothing. Even if the evidence did serve to overturn Brookins’ conviction, the DA’s Office has promised to retry the case — potentially under the theory that Brookins and the victim’s daughter, Sharon Ginsberg, were accomplices.

Attempts to contact Sharon Ginsberg were unsuccessful.

Her brother, Barry Moseley, called Brookins’ allegations against his sister false and “sickening,” and expressed outrage at the thought of Brookins being released. He said the trauma of coming home for Christmas to discover his mother’s battered body has caused lifelong torment.

“A jury convicted him. He should be grateful they didn’t sentence him to die,” he said. He called Brookins a menace, adding: “If he gets out, guess what? Somebody else is going to be killed.”

Back before the crime occurred, Brookins and Sharon Ginsberg had been romantically involved — and after the relationship ended, Brookins, then in his 20s, remained friendly with her mother. According to news reports, he called her “Mom.” Affectionate letters they exchanged were introduced into evidence at his trial.

By his account and others’, mother and daughter had a turbulent relationship, fraught with arguments about money. In a police interview from 1991, Moseley recounted a previous incident in which Sharon had pulled a knife on her mother.

On Dec. 20, 1990, Brookins says, he walked into Sheila Ginsberg’s home to find Sharon stabbing her mother with scissors.

But Brookins did not call 911, did not report the murder, and did not tell police what he saw. After his bloody fingerprints were found at the scene, he became the prime suspect.

Brookins, who is Black, was tried before an all-white jury. The jurors heard testimony by six defense witnesses who implicated Sharon. Some said she had confessed to killing her mother for drug money; others described seeing her the night of the murder with literal blood on her hands. But the jury ultimately discredited the witnesses, many of whom were sex workers, drug users, or prisoners.

To Karen Brookins, who dated Brookins as a teen and reconnected with him five years ago when his sister asked her to write a letter supporting his commutation, the case seemed riddled with errors. She read his file, became convinced of his innocence, and ended up marrying him in a ceremony at the State Correctional Institution Phoenix.

“He’s always had the truth on his side. It’s just that no one heard the truth and no one listened,” she said.

She said Brookins’ dreams include opening a fitness studio, mentoring youth, and leading gardening programs. He became an instructor with the nonprofit Transformation Yoga Project while incarcerated, and plans to continue that work if released. In decades in prison, he’s never been written up for misconduct, a Department of Corrections spokesperson said.

Johnny Berry — an exoneree who was imprisoned for nearly 23 years before he was cleared of a 1995 murder in Philadelphia — said Brookins deserves that chance.

» READ MORE: ‘They don’t deserve to die in prison’: Gov. Wolf grants clemency to 13 lifers

Berry described Brookins as a “warm, kind-hearted, selfless individual,” as well as a gifted, self-taught physical therapist who helped him overcome a debilitating sciatic nerve condition.

“He showed me some exercises and some stretches that I could do that would relieve the pain and ultimately take it away. I didn’t believe him at first,” Berry said. But it worked. “I swear I wanted to hug him. But we were in prison, so I couldn’t.”

Karen Brookins said she’d like to see her husband’s name cleared. But, more than that, she wants him home.

“He just does not deserve to die in prison,” she said. “He has suffered long enough, he’s helped a lot of people, and he’s done a lot of good.”