Delco DA ends bid to keep man in prison who won clemency after 25 years

David Sheppard (NBC10)

David Sheppard (NBC10)

Delaware County prosecutors announced Wednesday that they would drop a decades-old case over stolen jeans that had threatened to send a Philadelphia man back to prison after he served 25 years.

David Sheppard had been serving a life sentence for his role in a fatal pharmacy robbery when Gov. Tom Wolf commuted his sentence last month. Sheppard, 54, then became a political football in a larger debate over clemency and victims’ rights.

Jack Stollsteimer, a Democrat who took office as the Delaware County district attorney on Monday, said his Republican predecessor’s attempt to keep Sheppard behind bars by reviving an unrelated shoplifting charge from 1992 was a “political stunt.”

“This is not a serious case,” Stollsteimer said at Wednesday’s news conference. “The idea that the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office would be pursuing it 28 years later as sort of a vendetta against a man whose sentence was commuted for a far more serious crime … just sends the wrong message.”

Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer announces the dismissal of 1992 shoplifting charges against David Sheppard, who has been serving 25 years in prison. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A conviction for shoplifting not only could have put Sheppard behind bars for up to five years, but it also could have led the state to revoke his commutation, said Max Orenstein, his public defender.

“I haven’t yet spoken with Mr. Sheppard, but I imagine it’s going to be a tremendous relief to him,” Orenstein said of Wednesday’s announcement.

Stollsteimer said his office would formally submit the documentation to dismiss the shoplifting charge on Jan. 21.

Sheppard’s case dates back to 1992, when he helped rob Love’s Pharmacy in Philadelphia’s Overbrook neighborhood. During the holdup, an accomplice shot and killed owner Thomas Brannan.

What happened next is a wrinkle of Pennsylvania’s sentencing laws. Participating in a felony that results in death can lead to a life sentence for everyone involved. In some cases, the person who committed the murder can serve less time than the other participants in a crime.

Sheppard was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the chance for parole for his role in the crime.

Last month, as part of a broader push for clemency, Wolf commuted Sheppard’s sentence and those of seven others. The total number of pardons issued under Wolf’s administration is now 19, more than any other Pennsylvania governor since 1994.

Prior to the commutations, however, former Delaware County District Attorney Katayoun Copeland indicated she did not plan to let Sheppard walk free and revived the retail theft case.

The issue, she said, was not the stolen jeans but the state’s lack of communication with Brannan’s family over Sheppard’s commutation application.

“Convicted felons are being empowered and extended leniency at the direct expense of victims and their families,” Copeland said in a statement. At a press conference, Brannan’s daughters said no one from the state Board of Pardons had reached out to them.

Delaware County detained Sheppard a few days past when his commutation was signed. But in the face of criticism from Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and others, including celebrity Kim Kardashian West, the DA’s office relented and reached a deal to release Sheppard without bail as the case proceeded.

Now, Sheppard no longer faces charges, but he still remains under state supervision.

Lifers who receive commutations must spend a year in a halfway house and are on probation for the rest of their lives.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal