Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

A record 21 lifers are up for commutation in Pa. Does this presage a new era for the Board of Pardons?

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman: “I think the commutation system needs to be an audit, if you will, to make sure that those individuals who don’t belong in our prisons are freed.”

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman wants to rethink how pardons are handled in Pennsylvania.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman wants to rethink how pardons are handled in Pennsylvania.Read moreJose F. Moreno / File Photograph

James Inge, a man who’d been convicted of a 1975 robbery and killing, had invited the lieutenant governor to the State Correctional Institution Graterford to meet the other lifers and talk about the possibility that commutation — the lone, narrow path to freedom for those sentenced to life in prison in Pennsylvania — was once again within reach.

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.

“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.)

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.

» READ MORE: After nearly a half-century in prison, Philly man is granted clemency at age 77

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.”

» READ MORE: The man in charge of Pa.’s commutation system says it’s broken. Can it be fixed?

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.”

To Fetterman, George Trudel, who was released in May, exemplifies the importance of this initiative.

Trudel was charged with second-degree murder after his friend, Robert Barrett, stabbed a man in an argument. Barrett, who was convicted of third-degree murder, spent just seven years in prison; Trudel received the mandatory life-without-parole sentence and was incarcerated 31 years.

» READ MORE: An accomplice will die in prison while the killer goes free: The strange justice of Pennsylvania's felony-murder law

“George did four times as many years as the person who actually took a life,” Fetterman said. “I think the commutation system needs to be an audit, if you will, to make sure that those individuals who don’t belong in our prisons are freed.”

Fetterman recently hired Trudel, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Villanova University while incarcerated, to visit prisons and encourage other lifers and their families to seek clemency.

“A lot of them were discouraged because of the way the commutation system has been for such a long time. I myself was definitely a skeptic when it came to commutation. I didn’t believe in it, because it was too random and arbitrary," said Trudel, who applied reluctantly, to appease family and friends. "Of course, they made a believer out of me.”

For the surviving family members of victims, the flood of hearings is not uniformly welcomed, according to Pennsylvania Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm. However, she supports the bill to make commutations more accessible — in part because it’s preferable to other reform proposals, including a push to make lifers parole-eligible.

“The trauma most victims have to go through during parole review, those family members will be forced to come before the parole board every year … and it sweeps families up in a traumatic cycle. The Board of Pardons is different. It’s a one-time look …It doesn’t create this cycle of retraumatization.”