Criminal justice reform advocates decry Pa.’s life without parole law at Chester rally

Elizabeth Geyer shares the story of her boyfriend, George Trudel, an inmate at Graterford with a life sentence. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Elizabeth Geyer shares the story of her boyfriend, George Trudel, an inmate at Graterford with a life sentence. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Elizabeth Geyer has been talking herself hoarse trying to change Pennsylvania’s criminal justice laws.

She says a bill stalled in the Pa. Senate Judiciary Committee is the only hope her boyfriend, George Trudel, has to get out of prison.

“He’s been incarcerated for 30 years of his life for crime that he did not commit — that somebody else committed — and he’s still there today languishing in prison,” Geyer said.

Pennsylvania does not allow prisoners sentenced to life behind bars, such as Trudel, the opportunity for parole no matter how much they have changed or how unlikely they are to re-offend.

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S.B. 942, sponsored by State Senator Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia), would allow such inmates to be eligible for parole after serving 15 years.

At a rally Thursday at M.L.K. Park in Chester dubbed the “Redemption Tour,” Street, along with State Reps. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) and Brian Kirkland (D-Delaware) and Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland, said lawmakers have a moral and fiscal imperative to pass the bill.

They were especially sympathetic to the more than 500 imprisoned men and women in Pennsylvania currently serving life sentences who were either accomplices to murder or battered women who killed their abusers in the 1970’s and 1980’s before the courts recognized their actions as self defense.

“It costs us $33 million dollars alone incarcerating people who didn’t kill anyone, and millions more for other people who should be released,” said Street.

State Senator Sharif Street holds a rally in Chester to pass Senate Bill 942, which would give more people with life sentences a chance for parole. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“In Pennsylvania, you don’t have to take a life to get life without parole,” he continued. “You can be deemed to be a participant in a crime that results in a death, a death that you might not even intended, that you might not have even known about. Under current law they can never apply to come home…That doesn’t sound like justice to me.”

Trudel is textbook example of someone who should get parole consideration, Street said.

On a late fall night in 1986, Trudel found himself involved in a neighborhood fight in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. His friend stabbed a man, and the two ran. They later learned that the man died of his wound.

Trudel, 2o at the time, was deemed an accomplice for hiding the knife and perjuring himself on the witness stand. He was convicted of second degree murder and received its mandatory sentence: life without parole.

Now 51, Trudel earned his B.A. in liberal studies from Villanova University. He mentors other inmates at Graterford State Correctional Institute and has received recommendations for clemency by Villanova and West Chester University professors.

“He’s such a beautiful human being,” Geyer said. “We don’t argue the fact that he was wrong and should have been sentenced, but to get life without parole for a murder you did not do is horrendous. He’s done his sentence four times over and he’s going to die there if we don’t get him help.”

An official in the office of State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said more groundwork needs to be done to convince the committee to take action.

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