Reid and Wyatt Evans have been in prison nearly 40 years for a robbery that became a murder after the victim, 68-year-old Leonard Leichter, suffered a heart attack and died.
Dennis and Lee Horton have served 27 years for the robbery and fatal shooting of Samuel Alamo, 37, at a Hunting Park bar — a crime they maintain they did not commit.
- Lt. Gov. Fetterman wants to use clemency to free those wrongfully convicted. But the Board of Pardons is pushing back.
- From 2019: Is this the start of a new era for Pa.’s Board of Pardons?
- From 2018: An accomplice will die in prison while the killer goes free: The strange justice of Pennsylvania’s felony-murder law
Both sets of Philly brothers were offered plea deals for as little as five or 10 years in prison, they said, but rejected the offers. Both were convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole instead. In both cases, a third perpetrator they describe as the principal actor is already out of prison. Both have been repeatedly rejected for clemency, despite spotless prison records. Now, both will have their best shot at freedom at Board of Pardons hearings, to be held virtually for the first time ever this week due to the pandemic. The board votes Friday, after which Gov. Tom Wolf can consider their recommendations.
Without commutations, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has repeatedly argued in championing their cases, “they are almost guaranteed to die in prison.”
Fetterman, who chairs the five-member Board of Pardons, has led a charge to revive what was once a routine process. Through the 1970s, hundreds of lifers were released by commutation after serving 15 or 20 years, but the practice fell out of favor in the era of tough-on-crime politics. In the last 25 years, just 25 people have won clemency out of Pennsylvania’s 5,400 lifers, among whom are more than a thousand age 60 or older.
But the board’s last hearing, in December 2019, turned into a stalemate, as fellow board members, most prominently Attorney General Josh Shapiro, rejected the brothers’ applications, along with more than a dozen other petitions for clemency. Shapiro said he weighs each case individually, considering public safety, the crime itself, the individual’s transformation and home plan, and victims’ input.
Some saw it as a political clash between two possible Democratic candidates for governor in 2022. Fetterman, previously considered likely to seek a Senate seat, has indicated he’ll run for governor if it’s the only way to get commutations for people like the Evans and Horton brothers. “The trajectory of my career in public service will be determined by their freedom or lack thereof,” Fetterman told The Inquirer last month.
In an Aug. 26 letter from the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, 40 Democratic state lawmakers, the Pennsylvania Bar Association and other advocates urged the board to use its power to remedy unjust sentences and wrongful convictions, in light of the threat of the coronavirus pandemic to aging prisoners, the slow pace of appellate courts, and racial disparities in the justice system.
Shapiro said politics does not factor in his decisions — which he said are focused on balancing justice and public safety. (In the case of the brothers, he said, the board had previously interviewed them together; he said that was a procedural flaw given his belief in individualized assessments.)
“One of my frustrations is that people look to the Board of Pardons to address structural issues,” Shapiro said. “I believe that there are deep and problematic structural issues within our justice system. I’ve been talking about that for a decade, and I’ve been making meaningful changes within my office to address that. But you can’t solve those deep structural issues by a commutation process, because we’re forced to look at these cases on an individual basis.”
In Shapiro’s view, the Board of Pardons is not the venue for innocence claims, which are best left to be reviewed in court. For the Horton brothers, decades of appeals have been unsuccessful. And a case review by the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit raised questions but no exonerating evidence.
The victim’s brother, Reinaldo Alamo, 62, said he opposes clemency for the Hortons. “They took a human life, and they don’t deserve to be out in society,” he said.
The brothers describe themselves as law-abiding citizens at the time of their arrest, aspiring to careers in law enforcement. Lee, then 27, received his acceptance to the Police Academy while in jail awaiting trial.
Their lives switched onto a different track on May 31, 1993, when police pulled them over driving in North Philadelphia. In the back seat was their friend Robert Leaf, and he had a rifle. The Hortons say they’d picked Leaf up minutes before they were stopped. Police believed the three men had robbed and shot up a Hunting Park bar earlier that night, killing Alamo and wounding others. They arrested them and transported them, in the back of a police wagon, to a hospital.
There, according to police records, police asked three witnesses to the robbery to peer into the wagon and confirm they were the assailants. All three did.
That procedure, known as a “show-up,” is considered problematic because it can easily produce false-positive identifications, said Marissa Bluestine, of the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice. Current Philadelphia police protocol notes such confrontations are “improperly suggestive.”
Over the various hearings that would follow, the witnesses’ statements would conflict. For instance, according to court records, all three witnesses initially told police there were two robbers. After the show-up, they said there were three.
At trial, the witnesses said Dennis Horton was the shooter. In 2018, the District Attorney’s Office turned over the police case file, which included notes stating, “Leaf is shooter,” and a police note indicating that Leaf acknowledged his role while seeming to clear the Hortons.
To the brothers, that evidence seemed powerful.
A spokesperson for District Attorney Larry Krasner said the office supports commutation for both sets of brothers, but declined further comment.
Attempts to locate Leaf and witnesses from the 1993 trial were unsuccessful.
To Reinaldo Alamo, it was and remains an open-and-shut case, given the brothers were caught with the weapon an hour after the murder. He won’t be speaking at the hearing, but submitted a letter noting his opposition.
“When I heard this it put me in a state of depression,” Alamo said of the commutation hearing. “To think of ... the turmoil they caused my family, the pain and suffering that it did to my mother.”
Still, the Hortons, now in their 50s, are hoping for clemency instead of exoneration.
“I’m looking at it now like, life gives you what life gives you. ... I think getting out whatever way I can right now is a blessing. I know some people who died in prison,” said Lee Horton, who has four children, the youngest of whom was just 2 weeks old when he was arrested.
The brothers have mentored dozens of men in prison, served as peer mental-health counselors, created a “day of responsibility,” started prison-based reentry and anti-violence programs — and even put together a multipronged anti-violence strategy they’ve been pitching to city and state officials by mail. At the brothers’ last commutation hearing, prison administrators pleaded with the board to let them go.
Where the Hortons are known as leaders inside the prison, the Evans brothers are quiet and reserved. And where the Hortons maintain their innocence, the Evans brothers said they accept responsibility. They just hope they’ve paid their debt.
Reid Evans, 59, said the brothers’ goals are to enter the workforce — him in maintenance, his brother Wyatt, 57, in sheet metal work. Mostly, they want to the chance to care for their 86-year-old father, W.K. Evans Jr.
“They’ve been there for 40 years,” he said. For them to come home, “it would mean the world to me right now because I’m up in age. Those are my boys.”
The brothers were still teenagers when their 19-year-old friend Marc Blackwell showed them a gun and suggested that even though it did not work, they could use it in a stick-up. The three cornered 68-year-old Leichter, the owner of a popular Center City bar, Pop Edward’s Tavern, when he was leaving a supermarket on City Avenue. They ordered him into his car at gunpoint, drove him to Fairmount Park and dropped him off by a pay phone. Leichter died three hours later.
Blackwell, as the gunman, was convicted of third-degree murder, or killing without formulating intent to kill. He was sentenced to 37½ to 75 years in prison. The Evans brothers were convicted, as accomplices, of second-degree murder — defined as any loss of life associated with the commission of a felony, a crime that carries a mandatory life sentence with no possibility of parole.
Leichter’s daughter, Nancy, wrote a letter in support of the Evans’ brothers commutation application, but declined to comment in advance of the hearing.
Paroled in 2018, Blackwell, 58, now works as a home health aide and a barber, living what he describes as a quiet life filled with gratitude for the chance to be home with his wife and family.
Blackwell said he, far more than the Evans brothers, is culpable for Leichter’s death. He will not consider himself free until they, too, are released.
For now, the brothers are trying to manage their expectations. If they’re denied, they said, they’ll apply again.