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First woman lifer in 27 years up for commutation in Pennsylvania

It's been nearly three decades since the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons contemplated giving a woman lifer a second chance. On Friday, though, they'll decide whether to recommend commuting the life sentence of Tina Brosius, who was convicted of murder for allowing her newborn baby to drown in an portable toilet in 1994.

Tina Brosius
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It's been nearly three decades since the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons contemplated giving a woman lifer a second chance.

On Friday afternoon, though, it will decide whether to recommend commuting the life sentence of Tina Brosius, who was convicted of murder for allowing her newborn baby to drown in a portable toilet in 1994. Brosius, now 41, was just 18 then; her champions say she has since grown into a remarkable person, a nurturing mother to her two older daughters and many other young women she guided while in prison.

Only nine women have received commutations since 1971. The last one was in 1990.

Since life sentences in Pennsylvania exclude the possibility of parole, a commutation — recommended unanimously by the Board of Pardons and signed by the governor — is the only way out of prison for the state's more than 5,000 lifers.

Such acts of clemency have become exceedingly rare over the last several decades. Between 1971 and 1978, 251 lifers including seven women were granted clemency by Gov. Milton Shapp. The number of commutations dwindled — then stopped in the 1990s, after Reginald McFadden, newly released from a life sentence, killed two people and raped a third. Since then, only a handful of people have been granted clemency.

Lately, advocates have begun working to revive the practice by helping lifers develop their applications. So far, two lifers have won clemency with assistance from University of Pennsylvania students and professor emerita Kathleen Brown.

Brown said many women lifers had given up hope of ever being released, and hadn't bothered applying for clemency as a result.

"Nobody at [State Correctional Institution] Muncy, not the ladies that are living there, not the staff, remembers a lifer ever getting out. It's been a long time," she said.

In fact, Brosius' bid for clemency began not in her prison cell, but at her family's church,  Calvary United Methodist in Harrisburg. Stephen Grose, a Harrisburg litigator and a member of the congregation, had long been aware of her case. "She's been on our church prayer list for the past 15 years at least." In 2011, he conferred with his pastor at Calvary United Methodist and decided to help.

"It wasn't asked. It was a calling," he said.

He filed an application with the Board of Pardons in January 2013. It's taken close to five years to wend its way through the system.

In that time, Grose has grown to know Brosius well, he said. "She seems like a very sincere, honest person, and very remorseful for what she did. She has taken computer courses, has a certificate in upholstery, she teaches classes, she participated in the TED program [a forum for people to give talks about "ideas worth sharing," across a broad range of disciplines and areas of expertise]. She's been an ideal inmate. She hasn't had any incidents for over 20 years. Her family is behind her 100 percent."

Grose said the witnesses who will testify on Brosius' behalf include family, fellow churchgoers — and the Common Pleas Court Judge John Cherry, who was Dauphin County District Attorney at the time of Brosius' trial. Judge Jeannine Turgeon, who presided over the case, also wrote a letter in support, Grose said. Church members have chartered a bus to attend the hearing at the Capitol.

One person who doesn't support the idea is Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico, the prosecutor on the case in 1995.

Marsico said he didn't take a formal position on the proceeding. But his feeling is: "Commutation might be appropriate, but I don't think it's appropriate for her yet, at age 41, having only served about 23 years for a first-degree murder. Maybe five or six years down the road."

He said the factors that inform that notion include the fact that she is still within childbearing years, and that she has served less time than many of the juvenile lifers currently being resentenced following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that life-without-parole for minors is unconstitutional. (Many of those individuals have been resentenced to 35 years to life, a term informed by current state law.) He also considered the nature of the crime: "She killed an innocent child by placing a newborn into a toilet filled with chemicals and who knows what else, where the only result could have been that that child died."

Grose understands that reasonable people can disagree on what length of time is sufficient to answer Brosius' crime.

"We just feel the purpose of this whole process of clemency is, when you have been rehabilitated, there's nothing more that can be done by staying in prison," he said. "She'll be a productive member of society. She's helped raise her two children, but she wants to be there for them."

Brown said its her hope that Brosius will come home and help prove to the governor and Board of Pardons that it is safe to release lifers.

"They're so fearful if they let someone out something will happen and it will ruin them politically. We have to convince them  these people are going to do well, and maybe have some public push to say this is what we want."