Friday, December 20, was one of the most dismaying days of my life.
As chair of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, I sat in a session where we contemplated the lives of more than a dozen people condemned to die in prison. Commuting a life sentence in Pennsylvania requires a unanimous vote of all five members of the Board of Pardons.
An overwhelming majority of the people who come before the board come from impoverished and abusive backgrounds, and are people of color who have been locked up their entire adult lives. Many were themselves victims of familial and societal circumstances that statistically almost guaranteed they’d end up right where they are: in prison.
Mercy must be a partner to justice, and mercy lost on Friday when the board approved just two people for consideration by Gov. Tom Wolf.
Now, these souls are all but guaranteed to die in prison.
Philadelphia brothers Dennis and Lee Horton were offered 4-10 years to admit their guilt, but they have served 26 years for second-degree murder while maintaining their innocence as accomplices in a shooting. The killer was only charged with third-degree murder, and he was paroled in 2008. The Horton brothers have zero juvenile record. Zero adult record. Zero prison misconducts. Either they’re innocent, or they have flawlessly impersonated innocent men their entire lives.
Pedro Reynoso has one of the strongest cases taken on by the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. He has maintained that he was out of the country for his son’s baptism at the time of a double homicide for which he has been in prison for 23 years. Ten people, including the priest who performed the baptism in the Dominican Republic, corroborated his story. Family members of the victim have agreed that Reynoso was not the killer. He’s a Stage-3 cancer survivor in declining health.
Edward Printup killed his sadistic stepfather, who viciously beat Printup four or five times a week for 12 years, in self-defense. His sister testified Friday that their stepfather sodomized her when she was 8 and raped her throughout childhood. Printup has been in prison nearly 40 years. The Department of Corrections calls him an exemplary inmate.
57-year-old Francisco Mojica Jr., who now walks with a cane, is an exemplary inmate who poses zero public safety risk. He never took at life, but he has been in jail for 27 years for being present and hiding a gun after his brother shot and killed a man. Mojica’s brother, the killer, was released more than a decade ago. He wrote to the judge, pleading to trade sentences with his brother, who is now likely to die in prison.
Henrietta Harris has Department of Corrections full support for commutation after having served nearly 40 years for her role in a family tragedy. She has reconciled with her troubled past, including extensive abuse at the hands of the man she killed. She will now likely die in prison.
The Evans brothers, Reid and Wyatt, carjacked a man nearly 40 years ago using a nonfunctioning weapon as a prop. They never intended to kill him, and they hadn’t realized he had a heart condition. He died from a heart attack hours after they dropped him at a pay phone to call for help.
We are failing to honor the Board of Pardons mission of mercy, redemption, and the final check-and-balance on our criminal justice system, as outlined by the framers of this state’s constitution. We’re also costing Pennsylvania taxpayers an average of $50,000 per year to warehouse each one of these inmates whose own wardens say they don’t belong in jail.
We must understand that many of those condemned to die in prison are not hardened killers. Many of those condemned to die in prison committed their crimes as teens, but they’re now men and women in their 60s. In many of these cases, the wardens of their prisons begged for their release during public hearings and pleaded that they represent zero risk to public safety.
Many of those condemned to die in prison were offered short prison terms, as lenient as four years, under plea deals that they didn’t take.
Many of those condemned to die in prison never took a life, but like the Horton brothers, they have served many more years than the actual killer.
Many of those condemned to die in prison suffered horrific abuse, torture and neglect during their childhood. Eighty-four percent of the Philadelphians condemned to die in prison are African Americans born into poverty.
Some of those condemned to die in prison may in fact be innocent, and that’s precisely why the framers of Pennsylvania’s constitution saw the necessity of the justice system’s last fail-safe: the Board of Pardons.
Many of those condemned to die in a Pennsylvania prison deserve mercy from the Board of Pardons to make it to Governor Wolf’s desk. That did not happen last Friday. Barring a significant intervention, these inmates — needlessly condemned to die in prison — will.
John Fetterman is the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania.