Pardons board rejections leave Lt. Gov. John Fetterman ‘dismayed’

Pennsylvania Supreme Court chambers (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

A watershed year for Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons ended in disappointment for many criminal justice advocates on Friday, when the panel denied bids from nearly a dozen people seeking release from prison.

The Board of Pardons heard 15 cases on Friday from inmates hoping to have life sentences commuted. It denied all but two, and held others under advisement. 

It also recommended that one man, Corey Burrell, have his sentence reduced. 

Gov. Tom Wolf must review the cases and sign commutation orders before the successful applicants can be released from prison.

The day’s outcome dealt a blow to the board’s chair, Lt. Gov John Fetterman, who has tried to use his perch in the executive branch to secure reprieves for people sentenced to life in prison.

Reached by phone on Friday evening, Fetterman said he had no further comment beyond a Tweet he sent at the end of the day’s votes. 

 

Fetterman has traveled to state prisons this year to convince people to apply to have lengthy sentences commuted. Many prisoners had long abandoned any efforts to seek clemency before the pardons board, which granted only six commutations between 1995 and 2015. 

Fetterman has told inmates that they would receive a fair hearing under the Wolf administration, which has granted more commutations than Pennsylvania’s last three governors combined. 

But it takes only one vote to sink a commutation request. Pennsylvania’s constitution requires the pardons board’s five members to vote unanimously to send a request to the governor’s desk.

Under Fetterman’s leadership, the board has heard dozens of commutation cases in 2019. It logged its busiest day in decades this September when it voted on 23 applications and recommended nine to Wolf.

Most prisoners seeking commutations have served decades in prison. Those seeking clemency on Friday had served anywhere from 20 years to nearly 50 behind bars.

Fetterman wasn’t alone in his disappointment with the day’s outcomes. 

Celeste Trusty, an advocate for FAMM, a national sentencing reform agency, said many of the people seeking commutations on Friday had all the makings of a strong application — clean disciplinary records, support from corrections officials, and promises from family members that they would help their loved one get back on their feet upon their release from prison.

But many of them were denied release by just one or two votes.

“I have to remain hopeful, but today was really, really disappointing after all the progress that seems to have been made over the last year,” Trusty said. 

Fetterman told the Capital-Star earlier this month that the Board will meet at least six times, and potentially as many as nine times, in 2020. 

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

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.