HARRISBURG — Since Gov. Tom Wolf took office in 2015, he has commuted the life sentences of 11 men and women. That amounts to just 0.2% of Pennsylvania’s 5,450 prison lifers, who are otherwise ineligible for parole, but it’s still the highest number since Gov. Robert Casey left office nearly 25 years ago.

Now, Wolf has nine more individuals to consider for release.

The five-member Board of Pardons on Friday recommended those lifers for commutation during a historic marathon hearing for 20 lifers — more cases considered than on any occasion in recent memory, following a push by Lt. Gov. John Fetterman to make commutations more attainable for deserving prisoners.

The day of emotional sessions at the state Capitol offered a catalog of transformation over years in prison — but also of the devastation caused by 20 slayings on both the families of those killed violently decades ago and the loved ones of those lost to life terms in prison.

Eight applications were denied, including that of Philadelphian Richard Pacell. Decades after a fatal 1982 stabbing in the city’s Port Richmond section, the families of the killer, then-19-year-old Pacell, and the victim, James Mulvenna, 22, both described grief that’s still sharp-edged and raw. Mulvenna’s mother, Agnes Lawler, told of the deep trauma the killing brought on her family, while Pacell’s sister, Debra Thompson, who was just 14 then, said her own mother has not been the same since Pacell was locked away.

“We’re all different people because of this,” Thompson said.

“It’s gut-wrenching for their family. It’s gut-wrenching for our family,” said Robert Thompson, Debra’s husband. “At the end of the day, you’re left with two families, one of which wants their loved one to come home, the other of which will still have to live with a terrible loss.”

Among those recommended for release were four Philadelphia men — Gervin Deaton, David Sheppard, Oscar Pinto, and Antonio Mazzccua — and one woman, Mageline Stewart.

Mazzccua, who is 67, has served 42 years in prison for fatally shooting 19-year-old Bernard Redding in 1977. In the decades since, the inmate has become deeply religious, part of a group of incarcerated singers called the Gospel Messengers. He’s among the men considered role models within the prison system, according to Jorge Cintron Jr., who has been incarcerated with Mazzccua at State Correctional Institution Phoenix.

“They are leaders in this place who encourage the young men and others to better themselves, to always have hope, and never give up,” he said.

A 1990 Philadelphia Inquirer clipping shows Antonio Mazzccua, who has been a gospel singer in the prison system for decades. On Friday, Mazzccua was recommended by the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons for commutation of his life sentence.
A 1990 Philadelphia Inquirer clipping shows Antonio Mazzccua, who has been a gospel singer in the prison system for decades. On Friday, Mazzccua was recommended by the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons for commutation of his life sentence.

The nine recommendations were an indication that Fetterman is making headway in seeking reforms at the Board of Pardons, whose members include Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a corrections official, a psychiatrist, and a victims advocate. Fetterman has pushed for a more deliberative process, in which those cases that do not yet have unanimous support from the board can be held under advisement and given the chance to assuage the board’s concerns, complete missing programs, or fulfill other requirements. Three such cases were held for further review.

But Friday’s hearings also exposed the practical and political limits of that process, and the emotional cost of re-examining cases that victims’ families once considered resolved.

One man, Robert Carter, who is 82 and suffering from end-stage renal disease, would have qualified for clemency, Fetterman said. But given his health-care needs, the board decided he was better off remaining at the State Correctional Institution at Laurel Highlands, a state prison with dialysis and other medical facilities.

In other cases, prosecutors and board members appeared to remain focused on the details of the long-ago criminal case, despite evidence of rehabilitation. That led to a heated exchange between a York County prosecutor and Fetterman, who questioned how the villainous portrait she painted of an applicant squared with a 37-year prison record free of a single misconduct.

In Philadelphia, that approach has shifted under District Attorney Larry Krasner. He’s tasked his office’s Conviction Integrity Unit with taking an extensive, holistic look at the details of each case, as well as each applicant’s prison record.

“What the clemency process is about is not re-litigating whether the crime occurred, but asking whether the individual today is someone who is worthy of mercy,” the unit’s chief, Patricia Cummings, said.

Samora Ogden-Grey was 4 when her father, Victor Ogden, was locked away for life after fatally shooting Leon Banks in York, Pa. Though she was there to plead with the board for clemency, she also expressed sorrow.

“He is my father and the victim in this crime is my second cousin, so I’m on both sides of this,” she told the board.

Ogden’s family and friends described a man who has been a force for good within the prison system. But Banks’ siblings said the harm he’d caused could not be undone.

“I was a senior in high school, and when we got the death notification of our brother, it ripped through our family,” said Karen Ferguson. “Oftentimes, people make poor choices in their life. On that fateful day, he made that choice.”

Fetterman asked whether Banks’ family was open to reconciliation. “Given Mr. Ogden’s advanced age of 73, is it your position that it would be just and appropriate for him to die in prison?” he asked. The answer was a unanimous yes.

Doug Hollis, a former juvenile lifer released in 2017 under a U.S. Supreme Court decision that automatic life terms for minors are unconstitutional, said Ogden was a mentor to him and, he believed, would have been an asset in the community. Hollis himself had unsuccessfully gone for commutation six times, once winning recommendation to Gov. Robert Casey in 1992.

“He found favor with another inmate instead,” Hollis said. That was Reginald McFadden, who would be released in 1994 and go on a deadly crime spree. In response, state lawmakers changed the rules around commutation to require unanimous support.

Now, Fetterman and a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers are pushing for a constitutional amendment that would allow recommendations to advance to the governor’s desk with a four-to-one majority.

In particular, Fetterman is advocating relief for those who did not take a life but were subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of life without parole for felony murder, or participating in a felony that led to a death. Some of those individuals may have committed violent acts, but others did not intend to kill or were not even aware that the victim had died — including lookouts and getaway drivers for robberies that ended in fatal shootings, and burglars and robbers whose elderly victims died from heart attacks brought on by the stress of the encounters.

However, Friday’s hearing made clear that even those felony-murder cases are not easy decisions for the board.

Despite a stellar prison record and extensive family support, the board declined to recommend Terri-Joell Harper, an accomplice in a 1991 robbery in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties section in which Darryl Huntley was stabbed to death.

And in the case of Michael Helwig — who was about 30 feet away when a co-conspirator shot and killed Thomas Anderson in a botched robbery outside a pancake house in Uwchlan Township, Chester County, in 1983 — Anderson’s family said they saw no distinction between gunman and accomplice.

Kathleen Anderson Winter said the impact of crime was devastating: She raised her children in fear, she said, never letting them out of her sight, and still lives with that fear.

“I do not feel it’s fair that he walk free when there are those of us who each day walk with the memory of loss and pain,” she said.

When Helwig’s case was brought to a vote, Fetterman was the lone “yes." Helwig’s plea for clemency was denied.