A pardoned man died in prison before Gov. Wolf signed his commutation — spurring talk of reforms

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman said the death “personally devastated” him, and galvanized him to push Gov. Wolf to speed up the commutation process.

This June 1, 2018, file photo shows a housing unit in the west section of the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix in Collegeville, Pa. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma, File)

This June 1, 2018, file photo shows a housing unit in the west section of the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix in Collegeville, Pa. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma, File)

Thirteen Pennsylvanians who had been serving life in prison are now going free, after a state board recommended them for release and Gov. Tom Wolf signed off on their commutation this week.

But for officials and advocates who have long supported clemency, it’s a bittersweet victory — and one that points to a need for change.

The announcement late Thursday of Wolf’s commutations came after a fourteenth prisoner in line for clemency, Bruce Norris, 69, died of COVID-19 in prison.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who has been a significant force behind the administration prioritizing pardons, said Norris’ death “personally devastated” him, and galvanized him to speed up the process.

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“The governor and I discussed that [Thursday] and … it’s a priority that he wants to get it streamlined,” Fetterman said. “That was his exact word, he said, ‘We’ve got to streamline this.’”

Fetterman didn’t have many specifics, other than saying that Wolf is actively working on the issue, and that he thinks Norris’ death could be a “catalyst.”

Wolf’s office hasn’t yet commented on his decision to issue the pardons, or on intentions he might have to change the way the process works.

The pardons came after advocacy groups had pressured Wolf for weeks to allow the approved prisoners to be released. After the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons recommends people for clemency, the only step that remains before they can leave prison is the governor’s signature.

The pressure, already high because of the danger the pandemic has posed in prisons, ratcheted up even more after Norris caught COVID-19 at the State Correctional Institution Phoenix and died in a hospital on Jan. 30. The Philadelphia Inquirer first reported his diagnosis and death.

FAMM, a criminal justice reform group, sent a letter to Wolf saying, like Fetterman, that his process for reviewing commutations needs reforms.

“The process leading up to securing the required support from the Board of Pardons is extensive and exhaustive,” the group’s state policy director, Celeste Trusty, wrote. “It is unthinkable to keep people who have been given such a rare glimmer of hope in limbo — especially during a deadly pandemic that is overwhelming our correctional facilities.”

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In a separate statement, Trusty called Norris’s death an “entirely preventable tragedy.”

Norris had been incarcerated for almost 45 years when he got the virus last month. He was convicted of second-degree murder in 1975, after he took part in a robbery that ended in a man being shot.

It’s a common charge among the people Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons recommends for release.

For first and second-degree murder charges, life in prison without parole is the only punishment the commonwealth allows.

It’s an unusual sentencing requirement, and one that means Pennsylvania hands down a striking number of life sentences without the possibility of review. One 2018 study estimated it issues more of those sentences per capita than any other state — or country.

Various state lawmakers have tried, unsuccessfully, to make lifers eligible for parole. Advocacy groups are also suing the state, arguing the law is cruel and unconstitutional.

For now, the only hope lifers have of getting out of prison is commutation. Their odds improved when Wolf took office; since 2015 he has commuted 36 life sentences, counting the 13 newest ones, including two Philadelphia brothers who have long maintained their innocence. Wolf’s number is by far the most of any Pennsylvania governor since 1997, when the state tightened its clemency policy to require a unanimous vote of the pardons board.

As far as Fetterman is concerned, it’s not enough.

He says in a perfect world, he would like Wolf’s commutation record to rival that of former governor Milton Shapp, who granted clemency to 251 lifers while he was in office in the 1970s.

“I made it a priority because it’s something that’s deeply personal and critical,” he said. “I can’t think of anything worse than being buried alive in prison… it’s not justice.”

Fetterman is also pushing for state legislative action to allow people serving life sentences to be considered for parole after 20 years. He acknowledged bills to that effect have routinely failed in the GOP-controlled legislature, and he has no reason to think that will change.

As he spoke, he was on his way to a Pittsburgh press conference with Attorney General Josh Shapiro, where they released an independent study of Pennsylvania’s life-without-parole policy.

Conducted by the group Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, which gives free legal advice to low-income city residents, the study concluded that the current system does not make Pennsylvania significantly safer, but makes its corrections system significantly more expensive.

It uses as an example Pennsylvania’s oldest lifer: A 73-year-old man who began his sentence in 1971 at age 24. Over his 49-year term, the study’s authors estimate that Pennsylvania taxpayers have spent $2.4 million to keep him in prison, and cites studies that have found that involvement in crime declines with age.

“The data in this study,” they concluded, “raise the question whether continuing to confine him makes sense.”

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