‘I thought I’d die in prison:’ Commuted lifers will celebrate Thanksgiving at home this year

George Trudel (center), addresses the Pennsylvania Press Club on Monday 11/25/19. Trudel and Naomi Blount (left, rear) were serving life sentences until their release from state prison earlier this year. Both had their sentences commuted by the the Pa. Board of Pardons. Pa. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (right, rear) talked to the Press Club about his efforts to reform the pardons process (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek).

It’s been a combined total of 68 years since George Trudel and Naomi Blount last sat down to Thanksgiving dinner with their families. This Thursday, that will change.

Blount and Trudel were both serving life sentences for murder until their terms were commuted by the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons earlier this year. Now they’re working to help other prisoners navigate their way through the commutations system as employees of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s office.

On Monday, they joined Fetterman, a Democrat, in an appearance before the Pennsylvania Press Club to tell their stories, and stress the need for a judicial system that both protects the rights of victims and ensures that those working hard to change their lives and rehabilitate themselves are given a shot at an earned second chance.

Fetterman, who chairs the Pardons Board, says there’s “nothing incompatible,” about that notion, And if you’re not inclined to subscribe to such a notion, then the economic argument for freeing rehabilitated inmates who cost the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year might sway you instead.

“It keeps me up at night knowing that there are thousands of Pennsylvania prisoners who would be best served by returning to their families,” Fetterman said. “Our laws are based on Judeo-Christian principles. One of the core tenets of that system is the power of redemption and forgiveness. That process had been all but extinct.”

Fetterman has made reforming that process a cornerstone of his tenure. Since taking office in January, he’s eliminated the more than $65 in application fees, which he said deterred many low-income Pennsylvanians from seeking clemency. The Board of Pardons saw a spike in pardon applications in the month after that policy went into effect.

Fetterman said he’s working to expedite the applications of inmates age 65 and older. And earlier this year, Fetterman hired Brandon Flood, 36, also a formerly incarcerated person, as the board’s secretary.

Blount, who was serving a life sentence for her 1982 conviction on first-degree murder charges, but had never taken a life, said she’d worked hard during her more than three decades behind bars to take advantage of every education and rehabilitation opportunity that came her way. She was later “forensically exonerated” of the crime and was released from custody in July, Fetterman’s office said.

“I left so many good women behind,” in prison, Blount said, calling herself “blessed,” to be able to help other women prisoners who are pursuing commutation. She asked the crowd of lobbyists, business leaders and policy makers to “change their hearts,” and rethink the way they viewed people who are serving time — or had served it.

Trudel, who, like Blount, had never taken a life, was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in 1988, for his role in a fight that resulted in the death of a childhood friend.

Fetterman hires two former lifers to assist in commutations applications

While serving his sentence, Trudel said he obtained an undergraduate degree from Villanova University and worked hard to stay out of trouble. During three decades behind bars, Trudel said, he was never cited for misconduct. Nonetheless, his first commutation application received only one affirmative vote.

“I learned a lesson that cost me 31 years,” he said.

‘It’s a light at the end of the tunnel’: Ex-offenders and lifers seek a second chance from Pa. pardons board

Fetterman told his audience Monday that there are too many people just like Blount and Trudel who are still serving time in Pennsylvania’s state prisons. Some 1,200 people are serving second-degree murder sentences, for instance, despite never having taken a life, he said.

“How much is enough,” for such an offense, he asked “Thirty-one years? Thirty-eight years.” The man found guilty of the actual murder that involved Trudel served just seven years, he noted. “When you discover how arbitrary the system is, to me, that’s horrifying.”

Fetterman suggested that those serving such sentences should be able to sue to recoup damages, such as lost wages.

“If you get bumped from a flight, you get a coupon and an apology,” he said. “But if you serve 25 years wrongly? We’re like, ‘Sorry.’ ”

Asked to clarify his remarks in an interview after his speech, Fetterman told journalists that he “fundamentally believes that if you are wrongfully convicted in the state of Pennsylvania, and have your liberty taken from you and your reputation destroyed, then it’s not outrageous that somebody should be compensated for that.

“If you can sue for spilling a cup of coffee on your lap, you should be able to sue for being wrongfully imprisoned and convicted of a crime that you did not actually commit,” he said.

Unlike some other states, Pennsylvania does not have a mechanism for such compensation under law. And exonerated prisoners have “very narrow legal avenues” to sue, said Andy Hoover, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.