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Philly lifers' clemency plea hits a roadblock in Attorney General Josh Shapiro

Some criminal justice observers wonder if politics has again had an impact on Pennsylvania's commutation process - with criminal justice reformers on one side and an ambitious Attorney General on the other.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh ShapiroRead moreED HILLE

At age 76, recovering from a stroke and reliant on a wheelchair, William Smith has one more chance to spend his final few months or years outside prison — but it's a slim one, almost vanishingly so. On March 8, the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons will decide whether to reconsider his last-ditch plea for clemency, a request the board already had denied by the margin of a single vote.

Smith is serving a life without parole sentence for his role in the 1968 robbery of a West Philadelphia check-cashing business. It became second-degree murder when accomplice William Barksdale shot and killed the owner, Charles Ticktin, 55.

In the intervening half-century, Smith's life in confinement has traced the arc of criminal-justice policy in Pennsylvania. When he was locked up, "life" often meant just 10 or 20 years before the sentence was commuted. But it didn't go that way for Smith, and after a commuted lifer went on a violent crime spree in 1994, the political landscape changed seismically. Commutations all but stopped.

Recently, there's been a coordinated effort to revive that process, championed by Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, chair of the five-member Pardons Board, which also includes the attorney general, a corrections expert, a psychiatrist, and a victim representative. Six lifers have been recommended for commutation during Stack's three-year tenure — as many as the board had approved in the previous two decades. But a unanimous vote is required, and at December public hearings for Smith and another lifer, Edward Printup of Harrisburg, there was a lone vote against: Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

Some observers wonder if politics has come into play once again — with criminal justice reformers on one side and an ambitious attorney general on the other.

Stack, a Philadelphia Democrat, is running a competitive reelection campaign this fall, and second chances for people convicted of crimes have been among his few marquee policy initiatives in an otherwise tumultuous term. In a statement, he said the votes against Smith and Printup in December were "a stunning disappointment that left me, and many other advocates for criminal justice reform, wondering whether we had lost the momentum toward change and were heading backward."

Shapiro, a self-described progressive, is thought to have higher political aspirations in a state that voted for President Trump and has elected a growing faction of conservative state legislators. But in an interview, he said, "Anyone who factors politics into these decisions is reckless and irresponsible."

He said each vote he casts is carefully considered, factoring in "first and foremost" victim statements, along with public safety concerns and inequities in the criminal-justice system.

Shapiro said he could not discuss his reasoning on individual cases. But he pointed out that he voted in favor of commutation for lifer Tina Brosius, a Dauphin County woman who was 18 when she let her newborn baby drown in a portable toilet in 1994.

Still, Kathleen Brown, a University of Pennsylvania professor emeritus who has been working with lifers to develop their commutation applications, was blindsided by the December outcome. She was reluctant to wade into a debate, but said both Smith and Printup were deemed strong candidates by the Department of Corrections.

"Surprise doesn't quite hit it," she said. "Nobody seems to know what the reasons are. Am I making an assumption it's political? Yes."

Since the hearing, Smith's health has declined and he's been housed in the prison infirmary, according to his family.

"He had a stroke, and he fought very hard to recover from that, because he truly believed he was going home," Brown said. "My worry is … that he's just going to give up. Since the hearing, he's not been doing well. You have to have hope."

Hope has been in short supply for Pennsylvania lifers in recent years.

They face a path that is radically different from the time when Smith was incarcerated. Between 1932 and 1967, Pennsylvania paroled 607 lifers. In 1968, the year of his crime, 30 life sentences were commuted.

Even Ticktin's widow, Edith, knew commutation was likely. She had wished the death penalty on Smith for just that reason. "A life sentence doesn't mean he'll be in jail for the rest of his life," she told a Daily News reporter in 1969. "He'll be out someday. I know it."

Prison was different then, too: Smith was in a rock band, Power of Attorney, that recorded in Philadelphia and New York, releasing an album on the Polydor label in 1974. His brother, Jerome Smith, a retired police officer who lives in Glenside, recalls running into him downtown a few times while William was in custody: A skilled electrician, he'd be called in to wire new municipal buildings at a low cost.

Today, lifers are not permitted to do "outside" work. Without any likely avenue for release, they are classified as high security risks. And there are more of them than ever.

By 1978, Pennsylvania had 750 lifers. By 1988, the number had jumped to 1,858. As of January 2018, there were 5,458.

That exponential growth reflects decades of tough-on-crime politics, including an overhaul of the commutation process in response to a 1994 rape-and-killing spree by a juvenile lifer named Reginald McFadden whose sentence had been commuted.

It was a tragedy, and a political disaster for those who approved his release, including Lt. Gov. Mark Singel, who a month later lost his campaign to become governor. It also spurred a 1997 constitutional amendment that changed the process from a majority vote by the Board of Pardons to a unanimous one. Commutations became extraordinarily rare.

Jerome Smith says his brother sought clemency at least three times, but adjusted well to life in prison.

"He changed a lot in the first five or six years," he said. "After that, he just settled in, like, 'I'm not going anywhere.'"

But in Smith's case, it's not clear where opposition might stem from. In an interview Monday, Rick Ticktin — Charles Ticktin's son — said he would have no issue if his father's killer were freed from prison.

Now 71, Ticktin lives alone in an apartment in Levittown and hasn't given much thought recently to the crime that killed his father 50 years ago. In the years since, Ticktin said, his family just "plugged along." His mother and brother have both died, and Ticktin is retired after many years working at a dry cleaning plant.

"He can't do anybody much harm," Ticktin said when asked about Smith's release. "If he wants to get out of prison, best of luck to him."

Shapiro said his decision was based in part on victim-impact information not available to the public. Asked about the position Ticktin took in Monday's interview, Shapiro said, "It is directly contradictory to some of the confidential information we had in our deliberations."

On the same day as Smith's hearing, Shapiro also voted against clemency for Printup, who was 19 when he shot his stepfather, Richard Sergeant, in 1980. Sergeant had physically abused Printup, his mother, and his sister for years, and was coming at him for another beating when Printup grabbed a gun from their car and shot him 11 times.

Printup is now 57 years old. In 1982, he attempted an escape, but since then, he's apparently settled into prison life, working as a shipping clerk and taking college courses when he can.

"Having a few years to work before mandatory retirement age is a major concern of mine," he wrote in his application. "Commutation is the only means of giving me a chance to provide for the years left to me after release, and not becoming a burden on state agencies."

Brown, with help from University of Pennsylvania students, has been working with lifers to develop stronger clemency applications.

"It's really brought hope to people in prison who have no other avenue," she said. "Cases like Smitty's and Printup's really dash their hope."

Asked what might sway him, Shapiro said he'd consider new information or input from a judge or prosecutor on a case, or from the victim's family. He declined to say how he might vote next week.

Brown will return to Harrisburg for those hearings, intent on encouraging the board to reexamine the cases, along with that of another lifer, Richard Marra, who shot an Absecon, N.J., man, Michael Ragno, during a fight at a South Street nightclub on Jan. 13, 1986. The board previously denied Marra's request for a public hearing; Shapiro alone voted against granting him reconsideration.

Stack says he just wants to make sure the process offers a real opportunity for relief.

"Hope is a powerful catalyst for change," Stack said in his statement. "I believe that providing hope not only means a more humane justice system, but it also means a safer justice system for those working inside every day. It doesn't work if nobody gets out of jail."