Michael Watson, a Philadelphia man who has spent the last 40 years in state prison for helping an accomplice bind, beat, and stab to death a 65-year-old shopkeeper in Grays Ferry, on Monday learned that he will not die in prison.
Instead, Watson, 57, who is dying of pancreatic cancer, is expected to be paroled soon and to live at the Philadelphia Nursing Home on Girard Avenue, his lawyer, Connie Clarke, said during his resentencing hearing.
"I'm so thankful for being given this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Watson said from the infirmary at the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy. His image and voice were beamed to a Philadelphia courtroom vie video link. Clarke, of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, was by his side.
"I think about Mr. Cohen every day. No one should take a human life," Watson added as about 20 of his relatives listened in the Philadelphia courtroom.
He was referring to Joseph Cohen, the longtime shopkeeper whom Watson and an accomplice robbed and murdered in his store on Oct. 24, 1976.
The accomplice, who, like Watson, was 17 at the time, accepted a plea deal that sent him to prison for 15 to 30 years. Watson went to trial and was convicted of first-degree murder, which carried a sentence of life in state prison without parole.
Growing up in the gang-infested Grays Ferry of the 1970s, Watson dropped out of South Philadelphia High School at age 16 and started hanging out at a pool hall, where he met his accomplice, Clarke said.
The fates of Watson and about 500 others in Pennsylvania who are doing life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles changed for the better in 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that such mandatory sentences were unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.
In January, the court ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that the Miller ruling was retroactive for juveniles sentenced to life without parole before the ruling.
After hearing from Clarke about how Watson had matured and taken responsibility for his actions while incarcerated, and how he earned his GED and had no misconduct infractions on his record in 40 years, Common Pleas Court Judge Kathryn Streeter Lewis resentenced Watson to 35 years to life. He is thus eligible for parole and will seek an expedited hearing before the state parole board, Clarke said.
"It's pretty clear that Mr. Watson is no longer that 17-year-old kid sitting in a courtroom on trial for murder," Clarke told the court.
The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office approved of the resentencing, said Assistant District Attorney Chesley Lightsey.
"Part of the review of all of these defendants is that we look at not only the underlying crime, all of which are horrific because they are all murder, but we look at the behavior of the defendants since they've been in prison," Lightsey said after the hearing at the Criminal Justice Center.
"Mr. Watson has been misconduct-free for 40 years. He's done everything in prison to better himself and show that he is a changed and different person," she added.
Although no one was present in court from Cohen's family, Watson thanked the family for not seeking the death penalty during his trial and not opposing his bid for parole. He also thanked the victim's son, who he said had recently forgiven him publicly.
"Your family has been more than fair to me from the beginning," said Watson, who was found to have cancer in January.
Watson's family expressed relief that he will likely leave prison. Among the family members were his mother, Barbara, 76; brother, Dane, 58; and sisters Andrea, 55; and Kim Hauser, 52.
"We all make mistakes. Everybody needs to show mercy, especially to somebody who is repentant. God, in his love, showed us grace and mercy, so we need to extend that to our fellow man," said Dane Watson, who traveled to the hearing from Fort Worth, Texas, where he works as an American Airlines mechanic.
"A guard told me if all of the prisoners was like Mike, it would make his job so much easier," Watson's mother said after the hearing.
"I wish my son was coming home well, but it is what it is. I just want him home."