Lt. Gov. Fetterman wants to use clemency to free those wrongfully convicted. But the Board of Pardons is pushing back.
The Board’s chair, Fetterman, had sought to push the board to reach beyond its traditional role and step in where the courts have been slow to act, to free those who are innocent, wrongly convicted or sentenced to long periods of incarceration.
HARRISBURG — In 25 years in prison, Pedro Reynoso has filed numerous appeals, post-conviction petitions, and a federal habeas petition seeking to prove that, on the day in July 1991 when two men were murdered in North Philadelphia, Reynoso was not even in the country.
On Friday morning, Reynoso sought relief in a different venue: the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons.
The board’s chair, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, saw Reynoso as a test case for his vision that the board could reach beyond its traditional role — of releasing deserving inmates who had served long sentences — and step in where the courts have been slow to act, to free those who are innocent, wrongfully convicted, or excessively sentenced.
“Acknowledging the Board of Pardons is an imperfect venue for this case, it’s the one that’s here — given the amount of time it will take for this case [to proceed in court],” Fetterman said, noting that Reynoso, 59, a survivor of stage III colon cancer, is in poor health.
But the board overruled him, voting instead to hold Reynoso’s case under advisement indefinitely.
The board also rejected several other cases Fetterman had championed as examples of excessive sentencing he said the board ought to step in to correct. In the end, the board approved just two people for consideration by Gov. Tom Wolf: Freddie Butler and Oliver Macklin, though Fetterman had voted an “emphatic yes” on most of those up for review. (A third man, Corey Burrell, was recommended for a shorter sentence.)
Shaking his head on his way out of the ornate Supreme Court room at the Capitol, Fetterman hurled his sunglasses to the ground in anger.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who sits on the five-member board, had expressed concern about public safety in several of the cases.
He also addressed his skepticism directly to Reynoso’s lawyers — and, indirectly, to Fetterman. “The real question in my mind is whether to let you go forward with that [legal] process and try to prove his innocence, or to circumvent the process.”
Craig Cooley, who is representing Reynoso along with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, argued that he was a strong candidate for clemency because he had extensive family support; was amenable to immediate deportation to the Dominican Republic, his home country; had no prior criminal history; and had maintained a misconduct-free prison record, a difficult feat over a quarter century. That was in addition to his alibi evidence, which included 10 alibi witnesses, travel documents, photos of him at his son’s baptism in the Dominican Republic, and a copy of a land contract signed around the time the murders took place.
“You’d have to believe that he flew into the Dominican Republic on July 13, somehow flew out of the Dominican Republic back into Philadelphia with no documentation from border control, committed a double murder and then flew back to get to his son’s baptism, again without a stamp in his passport,” he said.
Marisol Colon-Torres, the sister of one of the victims, Carlos Torres, told The Inquirer last year that she had witnessed the aftermath of shootings and knew the perpetrator. She said the man, whom she knew as Chuito, came to her home shortly after killing her brother and threatened to kill her, too.
Fetterman — who has been on a mission to visit each of the state’s 24 prisons and urge inmates to apply for clemency — had also pushed hard for the release of three men highlighted in a 2018 Inquirer story about people who continued serving life sentences under the state’s felony murder rule after the primary perpetrators were released. Felony murder, which holds accomplices liable for any death that occurs in the commission of a felony, carries an automatic life sentence in Pennsylvania, while some other grades of homicide do not.
One, Francisco Mojica, had served 27 years for a drug-related shooting committed by his brother, Tomas Vasquez Jr., who was sentenced to 12 to 24 years for the crime. Mojica, a devout Christian and a hospice volunteer who sits with terminally ill men in prison, was considered a role model in the institution, advocates say.
The others were brothers Reid and Wyatt Evans, of West Philadelphia, who each served 37 years in prison for the carjacking of 68-year-old Leonard Leichter. Though they did not physically assault him, they and a codefendant took him at gunpoint outside a City Line Avenue store before dropping him off by a payphone in Fairmount Park. Leichter died of a heart attack shortly afterward.
“I’m of the opinion, how much is enough?” Fetterman asked, noting that each brother had rejected a plea deal for 10 to 20 years. “I would say almost 40 years is more than plenty. I would say this board exists expressly for a reason like that.”
In previous hearings, Fetterman’s advocacy appeared to have traction: The board had recommended more lifers for commutation than any other board in decades, and Wolf had granted the reprieve to 19 lifers.
But in some of the votes Friday, Fetterman was the lone “yes.” In others, Shapiro and Harris Gubernick, the corrections expert on the board, were the voices against commutation.
That was the case for Edward Printup, a Harrisburg man who had been beaten four or five times a week for 12 years by his stepfather before Printup killed him when he was 19 years old.
His sister Michele Ann Printup, 56, of Middletown appeared to testify as both victim and supporter. She said their stepfather had brutally beaten her as well, and sexually assaulted her starting when she was 8 years old. She was 15 when Printup killed him.
“It took a lot for me to say that. I never told that to anybody," she said after the vote, wiping away tears.
Then, she asked a prison staffer to tell her brother she was sorry she couldn’t do more.