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An accomplice will die in prison while the killer goes free: The strange justice of Pennsylvania’s felony-murder law

More than 1,100 people are serving life sentences for second-degree murder; in an untold number of those cases, the principal perpetrator has long since gone home.

Wyatt Evans (left) and brother Reid have served 37 years of their life sentences for a robbery that turned into second-degree murder after the victim died of a heart attack. The ringleader in the crime was approved for parole in February.
Wyatt Evans (left) and brother Reid have served 37 years of their life sentences for a robbery that turned into second-degree murder after the victim died of a heart attack. The ringleader in the crime was approved for parole in February.Read moreHandout

On July 14, 1991, a drug kingpin was standing in the hallway of a North Philadelphia apartment building when he was riddled with gunfire coming at him through a closed door.

The man, Tomas Vasquez Jr., was holding a loaded gun; depending on whom you believe, he'd just purchased it from a resident of the building, Efrain Gonzalez, or he'd stolen it from Gonzalez's apartment. What's not in dispute is that Vasquez, acting on panicked reflex, fired back, taking Gonzalez's life.

Vasquez's brother, Francisco Mojica, was also on the scene. He heard the gunshots, rushed out to help his brother, and drove him to a hospital with assistance from a police officer he flagged down on the way.

The two brothers were tried separately. Vasquez was convicted of third-degree murder, a homicide without intent to kill, and sentenced to 12 to 24 years in prison. As for Mojica, he was convicted of second-degree murder, a charge incurred when an individual participates in a felony — in this case, the burglary of Gonzalez's apartment — that "intentionally, knowingly, recklessly or negligently causes the death of another human being."

Today, Vasquez, the gunman, is a gaunt 63-year-old man living on Social Security disability in Juniata.

His brother is serving Pennsylvania's mandatory sentence for second-degree murder: life in prison with no chance of parole.

Vasquez was confused when he ran into his brother in custody and learned of his fate.

"How did they give you life? Who did you kill? I am the killer," Vasquez remembers telling his brother. He says he even wrote a letter to his brother's judge: "If you feel you did justice with a life sentence, give him my sentence and let me have his."

That, of course, is not how it works in Pennsylvania, where more than 1,100 people are serving life sentences for second-degree cases. Some were lookouts during botched robberies. Several participated in burglaries in which an elderly victim later suffered a heart attack and died. A few, it seems, just happened to be present when a friend or family member made a terrible choice. In an untold number of those cases — because of a more favorable judge, a better deal with prosecutors, or some other quirk of Pennsylvania's legal system — the principal perpetrator has long since gone home.

Last year, State Sen. Daylin Leach proposed legislation aimed at rolling back the felony-murder rule, which has its origins in a 1794 Pennsylvania law, but it has not advanced. Now, though, some see hope in an unlikely place: Philadelphia's District Attorney's Office.

Progressive DA Larry Krasner and his newly appointed chief of conviction review, Patricia Cummings, said the office will examine not just innocence claims but also sentencing issues.

READ: Could one Philly convict's exoneration prompt Krasner to examine other decades-old murders?

"We believe conviction integrity also encompasses fair sentencing," Cummings said, though she declined to give specifics. For example, she said, "if we see a situation where someone is serving a life sentence for first degree and they ought to have been convicted of third degree and we can do something about it, we ought to."

Advocates such as Bret Grote, a Pittsburgh-based lawyer with the Abolitionist Law Center, say they intend to push the DA's Office to look at disparate sentences, in particular.

"That one fact alone would be a very substantial factor for some sort of negotiated resolution in an appeal, if someone is serving life and the codefendant got third degree."

That's a rare source of hope for George Trudel, who was 20 years old in 1986 when he and his friend Robert Barrett were hanging out at a party in Frankford.

Barrett left on a cigarette run; soon, Trudel heard shouting outside. He rushed out and found Barrett arguing with a neighborhood man they knew, Casimir "Kaz" Barowiec.

"I saw the knife fall out of Kaz's hand and I picked it up and … I can't remember if Bobby said give me that or he just snatched it," Trudel said. Barrett stabbed Barowiec. Then he and the others ran inside. Later, they learned Barowiec's wound was fatal.

Trudel said Barrett and his family asked him to get rid of the knife, and later to lie at Barrett's trial for third-degree murder. He did, not knowing he could also be charged with murder.

"Bobby Barrett did seven years for killing that man with his own knife. I've done his sentence four times over," said Trudel, who in December 1988 was convicted of second-degree murder. "I'm on my 30th year now, and there is no end to my sentence."

Trudel, now a 51-year-old man with a long scar bisecting his face from when a man attacked him in prison, said all that's left of the arrogant kid he was back then are the barbed-wire and skull tattoos that still cover his forearms.

"I think about my actions that night and what it's done to my family and Kaz's family. … I never thought that I would be hurting people that weren't even born yet: my daughter, my grandkids, my nieces and nephews."

It's a familiar story at state prisons such as  Graterford, where Trudel is incarcerated along with Wyatt and Reid Evans, brothers from West Philadelphia also serving life sentences for second-degree murder.

They had no idea how much was at stake when their friend Marc Blackwell took an interest in an inoperable, sawed-off shotgun Reid had lying around the house.

"I bet we could get a stickup with this," Reid, then 19, remembers Blackwell saying.

So, the three drove up to City Avenue, with no real plan. Then Blackwell spotted a man named Leonard Leichter — a 68-year-old grandfather and owner of a beloved Center City bar called Pop Edwards —  getting out of a shiny, new black Cadillac Seville.

Wyatt and Blackwell waited for Leichter to come back. Reid had wandered across the parking lot when he saw Blackwell point the gun at Leichter and order him into the backseat.

Reid jumped into his car to follow them. He wasn't that worried.  "The gun I gave them wasn't loaded and it didn't work anyway," he said. "And I never knew them to do anything violent."

What he didn't know was that Leichter had a heart condition.

Blackwell and Wyatt drove into Fairmount Park and dropped him off a mile and a half away, at a pay phone, so he could call for help. The whole thing took 15 minutes. But within hours, Leichter died of a heart attack. (His family chose not to participate in this story.)

The brothers were offered deals for 10 to 20 years in prison — but rejected them.

That was 37 years ago. The Evans brothers are still no closer to being released. Blackwell was found guilty of third-degree murder and sentenced to 37½ to 75 years. He recently was granted parole. He plans to move in with his wife in Brookhaven, Delaware County, and to work as a barber.

"One of my parole restrictions is I cannot have contact with my co-defendants. It was a crushing blow for me, because I am unable to even help them once I am out," he wrote in a letter to the Inquirer and Daily News. "Reid and Wyatt Evans was blindly following me and do not deserve to stay in jail doing life."

With no avenue for release, lifers such as Trudel and Mojica are finding redemption where they can.

Trudel — who had been a truant, then a high school dropout — obtained his GED, then his bachelor's degree, magna cum laude from Villanova. It took him 17 years. He sent the diploma home to his mother: her dream for him, finally realized.

Mojica, who was a heroin addict when he was locked up, cleaned himself up and dedicated his life to helping others.

He helped start a faith-based reentry project and another program, Fathers and Children Together, to help incarcerated fathers connect with and support their kids. His own sons are addicted to heroin just as he was; because his wife doesn't drive, there was no one to take them to see him when they were younger.

He also volunteers with the Graterford prison hospice program, sitting up nights with dying inmates; he knows he someday may require that same care.

Despite efforts to revive clemency as an avenue for Pennsylvania's more than 5,000 lifers, Gov. Wolf has signed only two life-sentence commutations since taking office in 2015.

The Evans brothers have applied for commutation five times between them; Trudel has applied once. Mojica has applied twice.

“I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t believe in the system,” Mojica said. “But I’m going to fill out the paperwork and see what happens. I leave it in God’s hands.”