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John Fetterman ran the Board of Pardons like an activist — and at times a bully

As Fetterman closes in on the Democratic Senate nomination, his work at the Board of Pardons offers a lens into his political style: direct, unabashed, and sometimes stubborn.

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, right, and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, left, during a late 2019 Board of Pardons meeting in Harrisburg.
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, right, and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, left, during a late 2019 Board of Pardons meeting in Harrisburg.Read moreJoshua Vaughn / The Appeal (custom credit)

John Fetterman was a year into his leadership of Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons when the panel held a hearing that infuriated him.

Fetterman, who leads the board as lieutenant governor, believed many of the 14 people serving life sentences in state prisons at the time deserved early release. But the group, which has to agree unanimously, approved recommendations for only two commutations in the December 2019 hearing.

So Fetterman went to the only other elected official on the five-member board, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who had voted against many of the cases.

And he came armed with a political threat.

Fetterman, according to several people with direct knowledge of the conversation, said he would run against Shapiro in the 2022 Democratic primary for governor unless more of the cases cleared the board. In particular, he wanted clemency for Lee and Dennis Horton, brothers from Philadelphia who for 27 years maintained they were innocent of murder.

Eight months later, the Horton brothers were granted a new hearing, and in December 2020, the board unanimously recommended freeing them. Gov. Tom Wolf signed off in February 2021, the same month Fetterman launched his campaign for U.S. Senate.

Shapiro, who said his votes had nothing to do with politics, announced his long-expected run for governor in October 2021. He’s running unopposed for the Democratic nomination.

Those who work with Fetterman say he runs the Board of Pardons — one of his only official duties — with the heart of an activist and, at times, the force of a bully. As he closes in on a likely win in the May 17 Democratic primary, his leadership there offers a lens into his political style: direct, unabashed, with a stubbornness that has earned him both admiration and criticism.

By generating attention for the board and driving reforms there he’s significantly increased the number of people leaving with pardons or commutations. But his style also reflects Fetterman’s tendency to go it alone or react sharply when people disagree with him — at times turning people off.

Fetterman wouldn’t comment on any private conversations with Shapiro. In 2020, before the Horton brothers were released, Fetterman said that “the trajectory of my career in public service will be determined by their freedom or lack thereof.”

Shapiro’s spokesperson Jacklin Rhoads said Shapiro denies the conversation ever happened, and that the claim is “nothing short of outrageous.” She called questions about whether the attorney general changed his vote because of political pressure “distasteful.” Shapiro asked the board to hold the Hortons’ case so it could interview them separately and review information missing from their files, she said.

‘That, to me, means everything’

At a campaign stop in Yardley last month, Fetterman told supporters that he ran for lieutenant governor in 2018, a job with limited powers, specifically to lead the Board of Pardons.

“You have an opportunity to really make a big impact on second chances,” he said. “That, to me, means everything. You have an opportunity to decide what direction we take in our society. Should you pay for the rest of your life for a mistake that you made if you were addicted or you were young, or you were in poverty?”

Pennsylvania is home to the second-largest population of prisoners serving life sentences without parole. The board can recommend commutations — reductions in prison sentences — as well as pardons, which are granted to people who are no longer incarcerated. Recommendations go to the governor, who has ultimate approval.

“I consider life without parole the death penalty,” Fetterman said in an interview. “Some people would even prefer a lethal injection to spending 60 years in prison, and we have people on that track.”

Fetterman’s approach is a stark departure from previous lieutenant governors. He toured the state’s 24 prisons to encourage people to apply for clemency. And he’s pushed the board to reach beyond its traditional role of granting mercy to those already sentenced, and to step in where courts have been slow to free those who maintain they were wrongly convicted.

“He clearly is not shy about saying what he thinks, so I think his passion is genuine and can be good,” said Nilam Sanghvi, legal director at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. “Because without that passion, the board probably would have just kept doing what it was doing for so many years.”

» READ MORE: Fetterman doesn’t just have supporters — he has fans. His celebrity could make him a senator.

Commutations of life sentences in Pennsylvania began to fall out of favor more than 40 years ago, with the 1978 election of tough-on-crime Republican Gov. Dick Thornburgh. They all but stopped after Reginald McFadden, a convicted murderer, was freed in 1994 and then killed a man and raped and murdered two women in New York shortly after.

The case sank the political aspirations of then-Lt. Gov. Mark Singel, a Democrat who had voted for McFadden’s release. It led to tighter restrictions around clemency — including requiring a unanimous board vote, not just a majority, to recommend early release.

But under Fetterman, pardons and commutations have multiplied.

In the four years he’s chaired the board, it has recommended 46 commutations of life sentences. That’s compared with just six in Wolf’s first term, none under former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s one term, and only five during former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell’s eight years in office.

Pardon recommendations, meanwhile, increased 55% over the last four years compared with Wolf’s first term, 155% over Corbett’s term, and 118% over Rendell’s second term.

Fetterman came into office as the United States was rethinking life imprisonment. His predecessor, Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, had begun implementing some of the reforms Fetterman would continue. A 2012 Supreme Court ruling ended mandatory life without parole for juveniles, and a 2016 decision made it retroactive, setting Pennsylvania’s juvenile lifers on track for resentencing, and their families were organizing.

Sean Damon, organizing director of the Amistad Law Project, which works to abolish long sentences, called Fetterman “politically brave.”

“Because he believed, in principle, that people who have turned around their lives in decades ought to get a second look and a second chance,” Damon said. “He did work to crack the door open at the board, and let hope back into the process.”

Pennsylvania still commutes sentences at an incredibly low rate relative to the number of prisoners in the system. And commutations are nowhere near the level in the 1970s when only a majority vote was required and Democratic Gov. Milton Shapp granted 271 pardons over eight years.

“There’s no doubt that given the tight guardrails, he’s been effective in moving commutations and pardons into a modern direction,” Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said of Fetterman. “It’s where the people have been for some time, but it’s not necessarily where the politicians ... have been.”

The clemency process can take years.

The vast majority of people seeking commutations are serving life without parole. Each applicant sits for a merit review, in which the board decides whether to grant a public hearing.

Fetterman and Marsha Grayson, an attorney and the victims’ rights representative on the board, have voted for the most commutations over the last four years.

Grayson declined an interview. Board members Harris Gubernick, a corrections expert, and John Williams, a psychiatrist, did not respond to interview requests.

Shapiro said through a spokesperson that Fetterman “has placed a spirited focus on raising the number of applications for pardons and clemency.”

» READ MORE: Sign up for our Election Newsletter for exclusive news and analysis on Pennsylvania's big 2022 elections

In last month’s board meeting, Shapiro and Fetterman voted for eight of 14 commutation recommendations, and the seven that got unanimous support went to Wolf. The board recommended 122 pardons.

Clemency advocates breathed a sigh of relief after worrying that few applications would advance in an election year. While there’s almost zero recidivism among lifers released from prison, voting for release can still be politically fraught.

Among those granted clemency was Gary Kyles, convicted at 18 of killing a man during a 1979 robbery when his gun accidentally went off during a tussle in a car.

“We want to do anything we can to get him released,” the victim’s sister, Jean Mayes, told the board during the Zoom hearing. “It was my mother’s dying wish to see him home and we have always prayed for his mother because two mothers lost a son that day.”

“Thank you for your profound compassion and mercy,” Fetterman said.

‘He was trying to bully me’

Fetterman is vocal about what he considers a broken system, sometimes getting animated at hearings that aren’t going his way.

In one instance last year, Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub appeared before the board to oppose the application of John Brookins, a local man convicted of killing a woman in 1990. Usually people who seek commutations plead forgiveness and highlight years of redemptive behavior while incarcerated. Brookins asked for mercy while maintaining his innocence.

Fetterman repeatedly pressed Weintraub on why he wouldn’t test for Brookins’ DNA. The board traditionally hasn’t been a forum to debate someone’s guilt or innocence.

“It seemed that he was co-opting the pardons process in an attempt to relitigate the verdict,” Weintraub said. “He was trying to bully me in an extracurricular proceeding.”

Weintraub, a Republican, said it struck him as “demagoguery.”

“If this is a microcosm of how he would be on a much larger stage, then there would never be any consensus with him unless he’s getting his way. … Sometimes we need muckrakers and people to shake up the status quo,” Weintraub said. “But I still think there’s a way to do that in a dignified, professional, and courteous manner.”

Fetterman acknowledged his frustration that day but also said he still wants to see DNA testing in the case.

“I would have a beer with him right now and give him a hug if he’d just get that test done,” he said. “It keeps me up at night that John Brookins sits in prison.”

Fetterman, the lone yes vote on Brookins’ clemency application, keeps in touch with Brookins’ wife.

‘You get more bees with honey’

Some question whether Fetterman could achieve more with a softer approach.

“You get more bees with honey,” said Stack, Fetterman’s predecessor. “I found if you tried to be tough or rough or call people out, it would sort of flip them in a different direction where you could never persuade them. You could lose a battle here or there because you wanna win the war.”

Sanghvi, of the Innocence Project, said that while Fetterman “100% deserves credit for lifers being given serious consideration for commutation … there’s nuance as to how effective things have been and whether there are things, leadership-wise, that could have made this enterprise more effective.”

Others say the results speak for themselves and credit Fetterman with building unanimous support in so many cases, even if he wasn’t always diplomatic.

“Would he have gotten more people out? I don’t buy it,” said Damon, of the Amistad Law Project. “It takes polarizing people to move things. I doubt the ‘get-along-to-go-along’ would have resulted in many people going home. His big personality and willingness to bring the conversation into public view did create some public pressure.”

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Brandon Flood, who received clemency in 2010, became board secretary in 2019. Flood left the board last year after his relationship with Fetterman soured, but he credits Fetterman with hiring people like him who had actually gone through the process.

Where Flood faults Fetterman is in his ability to build political relationships — long an important part of working effectively in the U.S. Senate. Fetterman didn’t like having to personally lobby state lawmakers over the board’s budget, Flood said.

“He doesn’t really have too many relationships with lawmakers,” Flood said. “And at the end of the day, if I’m looking for appropriation from the General Assembly, yeah, I can go make my own appeal, but it has a different impact when it comes from the lieutenant governor.”

He also largely avoided talking to legislators about policies he publicly supported that could lead to more systemic changes, Flood said.

Fetterman rejects the idea that building better relationships in the Republican-controlled General Assembly would have led to meaningful legislation.

“The changes that I wanted to ultimately have, I discovered quickly, they weren’t going to really go anywhere by meeting with people,” he said. “So I just think it’s a function of Harrisburg dysfunction. I don’t think that was ultimately going to be fruitful. It was about getting as many pardons and as many deserving or innocent people out as I possibly could.”

‘This man saved our lives’

It’s not often that someone campaigning for a politician goes so far as to say he saved their lives. But that’s what Lee and Dennis Horton tell crowds at Fetterman’s events.

After their initial December 2019 hearing, the Horton brothers were resigned to dying in prison. They say Fetterman’s advocacy got them out.

“When we got denied … he turned to my family, my sister, and said, ‘Look, I’m gonna do everything in my power to make sure these men get returned to their families, because that’s where they should be,’” Dennis Horton told a crowd of Fetterman supporters in Yardley last month.

“And he did. And there’s something to be said about what people do in the dark as opposed to what they do in the light. … He did it when nobody was looking, when nobody else cared. … This man saved our lives.”

The brothers, who picked up a man in 1993 unaware he had just committed a robbery and murder, were convicted of second-degree murder, which carried an automatic life sentence.

Lee was 27 at the time, a husband and father of four. Dennis was 23 and engaged to be married. They spent 27 years behind bars, maintaining their innocence, counseling fellow inmates, organizing restorative justice programs, and teaching yoga. The man who confessed to the murders was released in 2008.

Today, the brothers are paid Philadelphia field organizers for Fetterman’s campaign and travel with him around the state. People ask questions about their case and take photos with them. Some just want to apologize for their years behind bars.

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Fetterman, who has faced persistent questions about a 2013 incident in which he pulled a shotgun on a Black jogger he wrongly suspected of a shooting, points to his time on the Board of Pardons as one example of how he has advocated for the Black community — a majority of the 5,400 lifers are Black men.

He’s received mixed reactions to characterizing clemency as work he’s done for Black Pennsylvanians.

And there are limits to what the Board of Pardons can do. By choosing to push boundaries, he’s helped individuals, dramatically changing their lives, but the system as a whole remains unchanged.

“Reform of the criminal justice system will disproportionately impact Black Americans in this country, but I don’t necessarily know if that’s a place where he can hang his hat,” said Mustafa Rashed, a Democratic consultant unaligned in the primary. “This is not a sweeping reform. … He’s helped 45 people as a function of his job.”

Fetterman’s support for clemency could become a target for Republicans in the general election, particularly if crime stays near the forefront of voters’ minds amid soaring gun violence in Philadelphia and other big cities.

He shrugs off the political implications.

“I know [attack ads] will come if I’m the nominee,” he said. ”But … to be worried about those ads is to say, ‘I’ll let you die in prison because of my own political insecurity,’ and that is disqualifying for an elected official.”

He added, “I said this to Lee and Dennis [Horton]: ‘Whatever this may or may not cost my career, me politically, we’re gonna get you out.’”

This story has been updated to include Shapiro spokesperson Jacklin Rhoads’ denial that the conversation between Shapiro and Fetterman happened.