From one victim’s family, a call to abolish life sentences for second-degree murder | Opinion
The author's father died after a carjacking, for which the perpetrators were incarcerated with no parole. Now she crusades for an end to the penalty that disproportionately affects people of color.
Over 40 years ago, teenage brothers Wyatt and Reid Evans made the fateful decision to accompany their friend in a carjacking. They had no idea their victim, Leonard Leichter, had a heart condition. When he told them and asked to be let out of the car, the brothers did, dropping him off near a phone booth, where he was able to call for help.
Leonard Leichter, my beloved father, had a massive heart attack and died three hours later.
Completely devastated by the loss of my father, my family and I felt justice was done when the brothers were convicted for the crime. They received the mandatory sentence required by law: life in prison.
As a young woman myself, I didn’t understand at the time that in Pennsylvania, life in prison actually means death because there is no parole. As the years went by, I started to think more and more about Wyatt and Reid. Who were they? What had their lives been like before that terrible night? The more I learned, the more my mind changed.
Wyatt and Reid Evans are just two of over 1,100 people with life sentences for second-degree murder in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has the second-most people in the world who are serving life or virtual life sentences of 50 or more years (8,242 people), and over two-thirds of them — 5,282 people as of September — will never leave prison, but die there.
Over 70% of those with life or virtual life sentences in Pennsylvania are people of color, and the percentage is even worse under the second-degree murder statute. In its audit of the second-degree population released earlier this year, Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity found that four out of five people (79.4%) convicted of second-degree murder in Pennsylvania are people of color, and 70%, like the Evans brothers, are Black.
Pennsylvania’s second-degree murder statute can apply to anyone involved in certain kinds of felonies relating to someone’s death, like the carjacking against my father, including those who were just there, merely present, or who did not intend to cause a death, like Reid and Wyatt Evans.
As the decades ticked by, the Evanses remained in prison, at our cost, despite never intending to harm my father, let alone cause his death.
All of that changed last year, when Wyatt and Reid received the required unanimous recommendation for clemency from the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, supported by my family’s advocacy, my church, Amistad Law Project, and other civil rights organizations. And in March, Gov. Tom Wolf commuted their sentences, finally allowing them to leave prison, on parole for the rest of their lives.
Wyatt and Reid Evans were almost 60 years old, well beyond the age when people generally “age out” of crime, the mid-40s. Today, according to Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, nearly three-quarters (74.2%) of those incarcerated for second-degree murder are over the age of 40, and more than one out of five (22.8%) are over 60. They’re no “safety risk” to any of us, at all.
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Knowing Wyatt and Reid Evans are no longer in prison, and have a second chance at life, has given me a great sense of peace and healing, helping my family to come full circle and finally feel closure. But how many others like Wyatt and Reid are still languishing in prison, posing no risk to others and deeply sorry for the pain they caused at an age at which, today, it would not even be legal for them to buy cigarettes?
The Evans brothers deserved to be punished, but they did not deserve to die in prison. My father’s death was a genuine tragedy all around, not just for me and for my family, who lost a loving father, talented artist, and golf fanatic, but for Reid and Wyatt Evans and their family members as well, who lost 40 years of precious time together.
Commutation of life sentences has been incredibly rare in Pennsylvania — granted to less than 1% of the life-sentenced population in the last decade. We all should realize that the circumstances surrounding my father’s death and the Evans brothers’ incarceration are regrettably common. The problems that stem from sentencing so many people — most of them young, poor, and people of color — to die in prison for such a wide variety of acts are structural, which means that we can change them. Pennsylvania can, and must, begin by abolishing the “felony murder” rule and eliminating the unthinking, automatic life sentence.
Nancy Leichter is a media analyst for Ad Fontes Media. She lives in her hometown of Philadelphia. Andrea Lindsay, the lead investigator and mitigation specialist for Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, contributed to this article.