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

By: - June 3, 2019 6:30 am
Tameka Davis cries with joy after her uncle Robert Wideman's application for clemency was approved by the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons. His case now goes to Gov. Tom Wolf for final approval. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Tameka Davis cries with joy after her uncle Robert Wideman’s application for clemency was approved by the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons. His case now goes to Gov. Tom Wolf, who has final say to commute his life sentence (Capital-Star photo).

It’s been 13 years since Kimberly Crespi was arrested in York County on child endangerment and harassment charges — the result, she says, of leaving her 11-year-old child in their house while she confronted an abusive partner outside.

Crespi refused to plead guilty to a lesser charge and served three months in York County prison. Since her release in 2006, she’s undergone therapy and enrolled in college courses, putting her on track to complete a bachelor’s degree by 2021.

But Crespi’s also struggled to maintain steady employment, thanks to her criminal record and a trio of chronic illnesses.

That may soon change. Crespi is one of 60 pardon applicants whose cases were sent to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk by the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons this week.

It’s a crucial step in getting her record expunged, sealing it off to employers, landlords, lenders, and anyone else who may see her criminal history in a routine background check.

“It’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Crespi said Wednesday, wiping away tears after all five members of the Board of Pardons voted to endorse her application. “This was a process, but I got to the hard part and it was unanimous. I’m happy, I’m grateful.”

Wolf has final determination on the applications that the board recommended this week.

Many of the applicants now before him were convicted of low-level misdemeanors or felonies; others had decades-old drug charges, theft convictions, or DUI records.

The governor will also consider an additional four cases from offenders sentenced to life in prison, who are asking him to shorten their sentences.

Public pardon hearings are held four times a year in Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court chambers, an august, high-ceilinged room in the state Capitol.

There, the five-member pardon board — whose members include Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, and three representatives from the public appointed to serve six-year terms — heard applicants explain how they’ve changed for the better since they were found guilty of their crimes.

Some say they’ve entered substance abuse programs or overcome addictions. Others point to church memberships, college degrees, or their growing families as proof that they’ve moved beyond the charges they’re seeking to expunge.

Applicants also have to explain to the board why they want a pardon, and many say that they will qualify for more jobs or housing options if their records are sealed.

One applicant, who appeared before the board with his wife and infant daughter, said he wouldn’t be able to volunteer at his child’s school with a criminal record. His case was unanimously approved by the board.

“There are a lot of negative effects that come from having a criminal record,” said Brendan Lynch, an employment attorney with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. “It’s stigmatizing… and criminal records matter far more in the last 20 years than they ever have before in part because of their easy availability online.”

While a pardon can help an ex-offender re-enter the workforce and the housing market after prison, it also “exists to grant mercy and recognize people who have turned their lives around,” Lynch said.

During public hearings, the Board of Pardons may also hear from crime victims, such as Christine Morena, who was 12 years old when her brother, Nicola Morena, was killed in a 1975 Pittsburgh robbery.

Morena appeared before the board on Thursday to oppose clemency for Robert Wideman, who has spent more than 40 years in prison for his role in the robbery that led to Nicola Morena’s death.

Wideman didn’t fire the gun that killed Morena. But he was charged with second-degree felony murder after the victim died from his wounds in a Pittsburgh hospital.

“My family will forever be serving a life sentence of mourning my brother’s death,” Morena said. “We will never be paroled.”

Testifying Thursday on Wideman’s behalf was Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, who prosecuted Wideman and his co-defendants as an assistant district attorney.

Manning expressed his opposition to Pennsylvania’s “unjust” felony murder sentencing, which lets an accomplice serve life in prison for a killing he did not commit.

Wideman’s niece, Tameka Davis, was 5 years old when her uncle Robert went to prison.

She was one of more than a dozen friends and family members who came to Harrisburg to watch the Board of Pardons vote. The group rejoiced when the board voted unanimously to endorse his clemency bid.

“This is the most glorious day,” Davis said. “We have waited so long… My uncle has paid his debt. None of us are the same person we were 40 years ago.”

How Pardons Work

The public hearings held this week were the first ones officiated by new Pardons Secretary Brandon Flood, whose own drug offenses were pardoned by Wolf earlier this year.

His appointment came shortly after Fetterman made a notable reform to the pardons process: the elimination of more than $65 in 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.

This week, the board also started exercising another reform at Flood’s request: recommending conditional pardons, which allow an applicant’s criminal record to be expunged unless he’s arrested on another similar charge.

“These conditional pardons historically have not been used, even though I knew it was something we were authorized to issue,” Flood said.

He hopes that having a wider range of options will encourage the Board of Pardons to exercise more leniency with applicants it might otherwise be hesitant to recommend.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in the General Assembly are pursuing their own reforms to Pennsylvania’s probation and parole systems, including capping probation terms and minimizing the technical violations that land parolees back in jail.  

Greg Knight, an attorney in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County, hopes Flood and Fetterman will continue their reformist streak by hiring more staff in the Board of Pardons office to process applications.

Since 1989, Knight has helped offenders sentenced to life in prison apply to have their sentences commuted.

Knight said it takes just a few hours to complete an application for a sentence commutation. But it can take up to five years to get a hearing before the board.

If all that effort ends with a denial, “it’s deflating — devastating,” Knight said.

Out of more than a dozen clemency applications Knight has shepherded through the process in the past 30 years, only two have gotten a governor’s signature.

Despite the long odds and draining application process, Knight said he’s motivated by a belief that decades-long sentences are wrong, plain and simple.

“I know people change,” Knight said. “What you did when you were 18 or 19, is not the person you are after 40 or 50 years. That’s a different person. If someone has shown sufficient remorse and rehabilitation, what’s the point of keeping them in a box?”

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that Fetterman, not Flood, made the decision to eliminate pardon fees.

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.