It took just eight hours on Friday for the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, which offers convicted offenders a chance to clear their criminal records or shorten their sentences, to do something that previously would have taken it years.
In just one day last week, the board voted on 23 clemency applications from people serving life in prison without parole — the most on a single day in more than 40 years, according to Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who chairs the board. That’s more than it heard under Gov. Tom Wolf’s last three predecessors combined.
The five-member board voted unanimously to send nine of those applications to Wolf, who must sign off on all commutation orders.
It denied 10 additional applications and held four under advisement, which means members may consider them at future meetings. Two of the cases up for votes during Friday’s session at the state Capitol were held under advisement from previous sessions.
“Pennsylvania believes in second chances,” Fetterman said after the marathon day of hearings. “This was a big lift. But we want to continue to advance the frontier of granting those deserving inmates second chances.”
The prisoners seeking commutations included those convicted of first-degree murder — killings committed with intent — and second degree “felony” murder, which can be brought against defendants who commit felony offenses, such as burglary or kidnapping, that result in a victim’s death.
Both charges carry mandatory sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Aside from an appeal, the only hope for prisoners convicted on those charges is to seek mercy from the pardons board — a process that can take years.
The volume of commutations the board heard Friday signifies — to some — a new era for the panel, which heard only two commutation applications under Wolf’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. It didn’t recommend either of those candidates for early release.
A new era on the board
Wolf, a York County Democrat, has made criminal justice reform a hallmark of his administration. Shortly after being sworn into his second term in January, he tasked Fetterman with breathing new life into the board.
The former Braddock, Pa. mayor, now serving his first term as Wolf’s deputy, began by eliminating more than $65 in pardon application fees, which he said deterred many low-income Pennsylvanians from seeking clemency.
Fetterman also appointed Brandon Flood, a former inmate whose own drug felonies were pardoned by Wolf earlier this year, as the board’s secretary, an administrative role that makes him a non-voting member of the panel.
Joyce Miller credited the Wolf administration with giving new hope to her brother-in-law, Charles Goldblum, who has served nearly four decades in state prison for his role in the 1976 murder of George Wilhelm in downtown Pittsburgh.
Goldblum, who has maintained his innocence for some five decades, has applied for clemency seven times before. Wilhelm’s family has been there every time to ask the board to deny him mercy.
“His claims of innocence have no merit,” Wilhelm’s niece, Sandra Horton, said. “We thought [his life sentence] would be just that — a life sentence without the possibility of parole, and that he would be made to accept his role in George’s brutal death.”
The board voted over their objections on Friday to recommend Goldblum be released.
“It’s Wolf and Fetterman,” Miller told the Capital-Star after the board voted to endorse Goldblum’s application on Friday. “That’s how we got here… the eighth time’s the charm.”
The 1990s — a turning point
Commutations for people serving life in prison ground to a near-halt in Pennsylvania in the early 2000s, board data shows.
The board heard more than 1,000 commutation cases throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
But observers said the panel reached a turning point in 1995, after board members recommended clemency for convicted murderer Reginald McFadden, who left prison and committed rape and murder.
McFadden’s crime spree doomed the gubernatorial campaign of former Lt Gov. Mark Singel, who voted as a member of the parole board to endorse McFadden’s clemency bid.
It also inspired policy reforms that stacked the deck against commutation seekers.
“There was hope among the lifer community until Reginald McFadden,” Gregory Knight, a Cumberland County attorney who represents prisoners seeking commutations, told the Capital-Star in May. “The board would give you a fair shake. But the perception after McFadden was that you’re wasting your time.”
Until 1995, it only took a two-thirds vote by the board to send a commutation application to the governor’s desk.
But that year, during a special legislative session on crime, the General Assembly passed legislation requiring the board to vote unanimously to approve commutation applications for lifers.
Knight and others say that standard made it nearly impossible for even the most exemplary inmates to secure early release.
Fetterman wants to change that. And a bipartisan effort in the state Senate may help him.
Last week, Sens. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, and Larry Farnese, D-Philadelphia, began looking for co-sponsors for a proposed constitutional amendment allowing the pardons board to recommend clemency to lifers who receive just four out of five affirmative votes.
The General Assembly would have to approve that proposal in two consecutive legislative sessions before it could go before voters at a statewide referendum.
Even though the process would take at least two years, Fetterman said he’s hopeful that it can ride the current wave of criminal justice reform.
“What [McFadden] did was an unthinkable tragedy for the victims and the victims’ families,” Fetterman said in a prepared statement Friday. “It was also an injustice to people who do deserve a second chance. We can’t stop believing in second chances for everyone.”