DALLAS, Pa. — Through a pair of solid iron doors, past chain-link gates framed by loops of razor wire, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman made his way into a prison gym to address a skeptical crowd in this bucolic Luzerne County borough.
About 180 prison lifers filled wood bleachers and rows of blue plastic chairs at State Correctional Institution Dallas. Some of the inmates had long white beards and canes leaning against their knees. A few had wobbled in clutching the arms of younger men for support.
They’d come to the gym last Thursday to hear the man who chairs the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons explain why, after decades of rejection, they should bother to apply for clemency — which remains the lone hope for release for the state’s 5,400 prison lifers.
It was both an unlikely lobbying effort and one of the toughest sells of Fetterman’s career.
“If you’re cynical about the commutation process,” he told the men, “you have good reason to be, because nothing was really done about it in the last 40 years. A catastrophic bottleneck has doomed hundreds and hundreds of men and women to die in prison. But we have the best opportunity in 40 years to get people out.”
Many said they had never applied before, although they’d been incarcerated for decades — in some cases, pushing a half century.
The first question came from a man who said he was a Vietnam veteran, imprisoned 48 years and denied commutation twice. One barrier, as he understood it, was opposition from the district attorney in his home county. “How do you deal with that?” he asked.
"What the DA says is a factor, but it’s no longer a deciding one,” Fetterman told him. Then he asked when the man last applied. The answer: 1987.
Commutations of life sentences were routine in Pennsylvania until the 1980s, when they slowed to a trickle, and then stopped altogether after a commuted lifer, Reginald McFadden, killed three people in 1994. After that, the process was retooled to require unanimous approval from the five-member Board of Pardons before a governor could grant clemency.
Board of Pardons Secretary Brandon Flood — himself a recipient of a pardon from Gov. Tom Wolf just weeks before taking the post this year — tried to convince the men that the process has changed: “Whatever your knowledge base was about the clemency process prior to January 2019, forget about that. It’s a new administration and a new culture.”
In his first year in office, Fetterman has made clemency reform a focus, eliminating application fees, embarking on a project to streamline and digitize applications, and seeking to turn what has been an opaque process into a transparent, accessible one. He’s also advocated for legislation to roll back the requirement for commutation to a 4-1 vote.
Under his tenure, the board has recommended more applicants for commutation than under any lieutenant governor in 25 years. Wolf so far has granted clemency to 11 lifers.
Fetterman’s long-term goal is to remake commutation as a release valve for an imperfect justice system, offering relief to the wrongfully convicted and the disproportionately sentenced.
Creating a viable outlet for people who maintain their innocence would represent a particular departure for the board, which traditionally has required expressions of remorse from applicants.
But last month the board recommended commutation for Charles “Zeke” Goldblum, who had served 42 years for the murder of George Wilhelm, a crime he has maintained he did not commit. Wilhelm’s family pleaded with the board to keep Goldblum incarcerated. Yet both the prosecutor and the presiding judge had written letters to governors as far back as Robert Casey, who left office in 1994, to say they’d learned of evidence exonerating Goldblum.
Fetterman said the board also is updating its regulations to include expedited review for the elderly, including many of the 700 lifers age 65 or older.
His effort recognizes that Pennsylvania is an outlier, with its automatic life sentences for first-degree murder and for felony murder, or participation in a felony that results in a death. Pennsylvania is one of only five states that exclude all lifers from parole consideration, according to a study by the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at the New York University School of Law. (Parole is a more routine process involving approval from a board of correctional professionals, unlike clemency, a political process that tends to fall in and out of favor from one administration to the next.)
As a result, Pennsylvania is home to 10% of the nation’s prisoners serving life without parole. Even as violent crime fell 20.9% statewide from 2003 to 2015, the lifer population grew 39.7%, according to an analysis by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
So Fetterman is pushing this Redemption Tour, which so far has spanned seven state prisons, from SCI Chester, outside Philadelphia, to SCI Albion, in the far northwest corner of the state. He also hired two recently commuted lifers: Naomi Blount, who served 36 years for first-degree murder, and George Trudel Jr., who served 30 years for his part in an assault in which Trudel did not stab the victim but hid the knife for a friend.
Addressing the men here, Trudel asked how many had filed for commutation. Thirty or 40 raised their hands. To the rest, he said: “I can’t blame you. I was probably the biggest pessimist when it came to the commutation process in Pennsylvania.”
He applied only to appease family and friends, he said. “What I’m here to tell you is: Don’t make the same mistake I almost made. ... I almost didn’t file.”
As the conversation progressed, some lifers seemed convinced.
One man from Philadelphia, incarcerated 25 years, said he had never bothered applying. A friend who’d served 40 years without a single misconduct had been denied, he said. How could anyone with a less perfect record expect to prevail? A real avenue for clemency will be a powerful incentive for reform in the prisons, he said.
“When you’re sitting in a jail cell and you see governor after governor never use commutation as a tool to help those who rehabilitate themselves, you lose hope,” the lifer said. “When individuals see hope, it makes them want to do more.”
Still, the questions kept coming: Is it true you cannot file for commutation if you have a pending appeal? (Answer: Nope.) How can the lifers seek to reconcile with victims’ families? (There’s a statewide apology bank.) What if you have a standing deportation order and you want to return to your home country? (That works for Fetterman.) Is there a realistic chance that bills proposing parole for lifers could pass in Harrisburg? (“Don’t count on the legislature to iron that out any time soon,” Fetterman said.)
For all other questions, the advice was the same: Go ahead and apply.