Patriot News: Advocates call for changes to how Pa. commutes life prison sentences

By Charles Thompson on August 28, 2014

A small group of protesters rallied at the state capitol Thursday for a loosening of the legal requirements for commutation of a life sentence.

The advocates argued that the 1997 amendment to the state constitution requiring a unanimous recommendation from the state's Board of Pardons as a threshold for clemency has effectively ended mercy for lifers — who by definition have been convicted of murder and can't qualify for regular parole — here.

But they got little immediate traction with either the Corbett administration or local prosecutors. 

Only six commutations have been granted since the constitutional change, five by former Gov. Ed Rendell and one by former Gov. Mark Schweiker. Since 2011, the Board of Pardons has only granted a hearing to one lifer; that woman did not get a favorable recommendation.

Clemency advocates, including released inmates and advocates for inmates' rights, argued Thursday that lifers with commutations have the lowest recidivism rate of any subset of criminal offenders, and many use their second chance to become productive members of their communities.

The prospect of a late-in-life release, they added, is a powerful incentive for long-term inmates to embrace positive life changes while in prison.

"There has to be hope or redemption and release," said Tyrone Werts, a 64-year-old Philadelphian convicted of second-degree murder who was granted a commutation by Rendell and now works for Temple University.

For taxpayers, meanwhile, clemency can help reduce the population of aging inmates who need high levels of health care.

Pennsylvania has more than 5,000 inmates serving life sentences.

Some, like Philadelphian Avis Lee, who was convicted of second-degree murder after serving as a lookout in a robbery that ended with a fatal shooting, did not actually commit or plan any killing.

Under the state's felony murder doctrine, an accomplice to any crime that results in a murder bears shared responsibility for that murder.

Lee's request for a commutation hearing was denied by the Board of Pardons earlier Thursday.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Tom Corbett said Thursday night that "moving to a unanimous vote [for commutation] was a constitutional change driven by the will of the people.

"The governor supports the current policy," Lynn Lawson said.

A midstate prosecutor reached after the rally also said he sees no need for change in the current system.

Dauphin County District Attorney Edward Marsico Jr. said the bar for commutation is appropriately high, given that anyone facing a life without parole term in Pennsylvania has, by definition, participated in a murder.

Marsico said he can favor changes in the way lower-level crimes are expunged from offenders' records, which might allow the Board of Pardons to devote more time and study to commutation requests.

But as one prosecutor, he said he has no problem with the unanimity requirement, because victim's families deserve truth in sentencing, too.

"For someone who commits a murder, five people should have to agree that it's appropriate to have the sentence commuted," Marsico said.


Members of the Campaign to Restore Meaningful Commutation rally at the Pennsylvania Capitol for changes to rescind the Board of Pardons unanimous vote requirement for commutation of life sentences. (Charles Thompson /