The Lead

‘These folks are not Hannibal Lecter’: Push to reform Pa. second-degree murder statute continues

By: - June 1, 2021 5:19 pm

More than 1,100 Pennsylvanians are serving time for second-degree murder, meaning they were convicted for a situation — not their actions — that comes with a life sentence without parole.

So in Pennsylvania, a person found guilty of second-degree murder can expect to die behind bars for their involvement in a felony that accidentally or unintentionally leads to murder.

“These folks are not Hannibal Lecter,” Lt. Gov. John Fetterman said during a Tuesday town hall with reform advocates. “These are individuals that may have been involved in a bad decision, terrible mistake, or something that they had no idea was going to occur.”

Prison reform advocates have called Pennsylvania’s felony murder statute an “archaic” law that has devastated people’s lives. And reports from the legal aid group Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity show that it has especially affected communities of color.

It’s something Fetterman, House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, and advocates for change would like to see overturned.

McClinton, a former public defender, said she saw firsthand how Pennsylvania’s judicial system isn’t accessible — or where justice is “flat out denied,” she said.

“Under the felony murder or murder statute, which is so archaic in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, we have to make efforts, both on the grounds outside of the Capitol Building and of course, inside the Capitol Building to change the law,” McClinton said.

Shawn Bushway, a senior policy researcher at RAND Corporation, said it doesn’t make sense to punish first-degree and second-degree murder the same way, adding that the statute does little to prevent crime. Bushway noted that if a person was convinced at 20-years-old, they probably aren’t the same person by the time they turn 40.

There’s no guarantee that a person will never commit another crime, but Bushway said the cost benefits are low — citing the potentially reduced costs to prison by having fewer people incarcerated. 

“I think the larger conversation is about why this rule’s on the books in the first place and some of the distortions that are being created by it,” he said. “And I think that’s the thing I’m most troubled by.”

In the future, McClinton said Pennsylvania needs to fund indigent public defense — it’s the only state that does not — allow for parole options after a certain amount of time, and reform the state pardon process.

“We finally have to invest in our communities to do everything possible to interrupt a vicious cycle,” McClinton said.

She added: “We know that we have work to do because it not only destroys the lives of those individuals but on the outside world, it sadly just ravishes families, especially families and communities of color.”

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