Pardoned by Wolf, Philadelphia man’s prison release blocked by decades-old theft charges

Delaware County Courthouse in Media, Pa. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

David Sheppard was supposed to leave prison for the first time in 25 years on Friday on a commutation order from Gov. Tom Wolf. 

Instead, he’s being detained and faces charges for a decades-old shoplifting case.

“I’ll be damned but they actually did it,” Lt. Gov John Fetterman said Friday of the Delaware County District Attorney Office’s decision to prosecute Sheppard for allegedly stealing a pair of blue jeans in 1992.

Fetterman said he was warned weeks ago that Delaware County District Attorney Katayoun Copeland might pursue charges against Sheppard when he was released from custody.

He still believed Sheppard would leave SCI-Phoenix on Friday, one day after Wolf signed an order cutting short a life sentence for his role in a 1992 murder in Philadelphia. Sheppard was supposed to spend one year in a half-way house before being released to live with his family under lifetime parole supervision.

By Friday afternoon, however, Sheppard was still being held at the state prison, Fetterman said, as his public defender prepared an emergency brief for the Delaware County president judge arguing that Sheppard’s detention is unlawful.

A deputy prosecutor told the Philadelphia Inquirer he had an outstanding warrant for the 1992 theft, and that the District Attorney’s office has considered him a fugitive for the 25 years he’s been behind bars.

Copeland, elected as a Republican, lost a reelection bid in November and will leave office in January. 

Her decision to charge Sheppard is a sharp rebuke of Wolf and Fetterman’s effort to revive Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons and to grant early release to people sentenced to life in prison.

Pennsylvania has one of the nation’s largest populations of people sentenced to life in prison.

Some 1,200 of them were convicted of Pennsylvania’s second-degree murder law, which carries a life sentence for people who were accomplices to felonies that led to someone’s death.

People seeking commutations must get the unanimous support of the five-member Board of Pardons, which has heard 65 applications this year from people serving life in prison.

The board discusses the merits of each case in a public hearing in Harrisburg, where anyone who objects or supports a clemency bid can raise their position with the board.  

Fetterman noted that Copeland did not appear at the public hearing to oppose Sheppard’s arrest. His commutation was one of eight that Wolf granted on Friday.

“It’s just an empty, cruel piece of performance art, especially from someone who will only be in office three more weeks,” he said. 

Fetterman said it won’t slow the Wolf administration’s efforts to speed up commutations in Pennsylvania.

He said the Board of Pardons plans to scale up its operations in the new year. It will meet six times in 2020, Fetterman said, compared to the four meetings it held this year. 

The panel is allowed to meet up to nine times a year — a rate that Fetterman hopes to meet before Wolf’s second term ends in 2022. 

“The velocity and number [of commutations] is going to accelerate significantly,” Fetterman said. “This is a complete reinvention of this process from top to bottom.”