His life sentence commuted, prisoner now faces theft charges dating back to 1992

The correctional complex on State Road in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The correctional complex on State Road in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

When Governor Tom Wolf announced his latest round of commutations for state inmates, David Sheppard’s name was among them.

But Sheppard, who served 25 years of a life sentence for second-degree murder, is still not free. Delaware County prosecutors are pursuing a decades-old retail theft charge against him and have filed a detainer to keep him from being released.

Sheppard got his life sentence for a 1992 robbery in which a co-conspirator shot and killed a pharmacy owner.

He didn’t kill anyone himself, but Sheppard’s second-degree murder conviction carried a life sentence—and in Pennsylvania, that always means life without parole.

Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman chairs the commonwealth’s Board of Pardons. He said he and Governor Tom Wolf are systematically trying to commute sentences they think were overly harsh, like Sheppard’s.

And he said he’s incensed that the Delaware County District Attorney decided to prosecute Sheppard so many years later.

“They attempted to attempt to thwart the will of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and they did it in a very cruel and petty and small manner,” Fetterman said.

He added, “There’s a statute of limitations for sexual assault against a child, but apparently if you stole a pair of jeans 30 years ago—like, I mean it’s wrong on so many levels.”

Sheppard’s public defender, Max Orenstein, confirmed the retail theft charge stems from an incident 28 years ago in which Sheppard allegedly stole five pairs of jeans from a now-closed store. Orenstein said Delaware County is alleging Sheppard posted bail but failed to turn up for his court date, though the defense has not conceded that happened.

On Friday morning, the day Sheppard likely would have been released from state custody, Orenstein said he filed a writ of habeas corpus. It means, literally, “produce the body.”

“The last I heard from the government, they had been unable to locate any witness in the retail theft case, and if anything has changed I have not been told,” Orenstein said, adding that he believes Sheppard is “being held in custody in violation of his constitutional rights.”

A spokesperson for the Delaware County District Attorney didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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