Twenty-five years ago, David Sheppard was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison for his role in the fatal 1992 robbery of Love’s Pharmacy, in which a coconspirator shot and killed the owner, 64-year-old Thomas Brannan.
This year, Sheppard glimpsed hope for the first time when he became one of 20 men and women recommended for clemency by the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, which Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has sought to spark into action after decades of near dormancy.
But even if Gov. Tom Wolf signs off on Sheppard’s release, he now faces a different hurdle — one that seems to illuminate the resistance among some prosecutors to the administration’s newfound commitment to second chances.
It turns out that Sheppard has an open case dating to 1992: a retail theft involving five pairs of jeans, worth a total of $324.95, lifted from a now-defunct store called Jeans West. So he could be transported directly from state prison to Delaware County’s jail.
“He was arrested on Jan. 18, 1992, and charged with retail theft in Springfield Township,” said Deputy District Attorney Daniel McDevitt, who heads the trial division at the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office. “He posted bail Jan. 21, and signed notice of his next court date, Jan. 23. He failed to appear and has been a fugitive ever since.”
That Sheppard had been in state custody for most of the 27 years as a fugitive from Delaware County was not relevant, McDevitt said: “It was his responsibility to come to court and let us know where he is.”
Had the case been resolved decades ago, any sentence likely would have been served concurrent to his life sentence, according to McDevitt; the charge against Sheppard could carry an additional five years in prison.
Sheppard’s lawyer at the Delaware County Public Defender’s Office argued in court filings that prosecution at this late date violates his right to a speedy trial.
“The government can offer no compelling or legitimate reason for its delay in prosecuting Mr. Sheppard,” public defender Max Orenstein wrote. “The length of the delay — spanning close to 30 years — is substantial and extraordinary.”
To George Trudel, a former lifer whom Fetterman hired to help restore the commutation process, the case seems just one more way that “tough-on-crime” politics has posed a barrier to those who have worked hard for redemption.
“It seems malicious,” Trudel said. “The man’s done 30 years in prison and now you’re still coming after him for a retail theft? It’s really, to me, indicative of what’s wrong with the system, that you would spend that time and energy going after a retail theft from 30 years ago because a man made commutation and it doesn’t sit well with your ideology and belief.”
Sheppard, now 54, was one of four men convicted in the killing of Brannan, who, like the corner pharmacy he ran, was beloved in Philadelphia’s Overbrook neighborhood.
Brannan had four daughters, including Regina Marcellus, now 58, who says the family was not notified of Sheppard’s commutation application by the state Victim Advocate or the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.
Instead, she said, they learned of the public hearing before the Board of Pardons after the fact, from McDevitt, the Delaware County deputy district attorney.
She describes the 1992 crime as a devastating event that rippled through the community. “As soon as it happened, a lot of people put their houses up for sale. ... It was a big blow to that neighborhood as well as to my family.”
She’s ambivalent about Sheppard’s potential release.
“Some days I don’t think he should get out, and other days I’m a little more merciful,” she said. “Regardless of our feelings ... we’re a little disturbed that we were left out of the process.”
Jane Roh, a spokesperson for Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, said the office had made numerous attempts to contact Brannan’s family, without success. They eventually did reach Marcellus after an Inquirer reporter asked about efforts to contact her.
Regardless, Krasner’s office supports Sheppard’s commutation application. Roh said it was “unfortunate” that Delaware County DA Katayoun Copeland was pursuing a theft charge over the stolen jeans, which were recovered long ago.
“A bench warrant has been in place for this charge for decades, and the Delco DA never pursued this charge despite Sheppard being in Department of Corrections custody for the last 26 years,” she said.
In the Nov. 5 election, Copeland lost her position to Jack Stollsteimer, a Democrat who, like Krasner, received support from billionaire George Soros.
For now, though, Sheppard’s case remains one more example of the stark divides between Krasner and Pennsylvania prosecutors who have steadfastly opposed the push for clemency coming from Harrisburg.
Pennsylvania prisons are home to 5,400 people serving life sentences, or about 10% of those serving life without parole nationwide. Since 1995, just 17 have been granted clemency, 11 of those by Wolf.
“There is resistance depending on what county you’re in,” said Kathleen Brown, a professor emerita at the University of Pennsylvania who has been working with lifers to apply for clemency. “There are DAs in certain counties who say they won’t support it” regardless of the merits of an individual case.
Sheppard, who was prosecuted under Pennsylvania’s felony murder law — which holds those who participate in a felony accountable for any loss of life — said in an interview that on that day in 1992, he was riding in a car with men he thought planned to run an errand at the pharmacy, not to rob it, let alone shoot anyone.
Since he was incarcerated, he has worked at self-transformation: obtaining his GED and attending college courses, and volunteering at the prison’s hospice program, where men sit vigil and care for terminally ill peers. “It’s one of the most gratifying things I’ve done since I’ve been here, to sit with the dying and give them comfort,” Sheppard said.
If released, he plans to live with his brother, Ronald, in Hagerstown, Md., where a job in building maintenance is awaiting him. He has five children and 13 grandchildren to catch up with.
He’s hoping the retail theft case can be resolved with probation.
“I’m trying to figure out what I’m caught in the middle of,” he said. “I don’t think it’s about me. I don’t know if it’s a political thing. It can’t be about no 30-year-old retail theft.”