Harrisburg, PA - Nine clemency applicants sentenced to life in prison could be freed after the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, led by Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, sent Gov. Tom Wolf a record number of recommendations for sentence commutations.
Another four applicants with strong cases for clemency were held under advisement and could be considered for commutation in an upcoming session.
Fetterman chairs the five-person board, which hears applications for pardons and commutation. The board must vote unanimously (5-0) to pass the recommendation to the governor, who’s the only person with the power to commute sentences or issue pardons. He can choose whether to and when to act on the recommendations.
The board interviewed 21 life-sentence applicants during a three-day session that ended Friday. Of those, nine received votes to be forwarded to Wolf.
That’s the highest number of commutation recommendations since the early 1990s.
Fetterman is particularly interested in commutations for cases in which the inmate didn’t take a life. Such convictions would include cases of, for example, second-degree murder in which a person participated in a crime resulting in a homicide but didn’t “pull the trigger.”
“If you didn’t take a life, the state shouldn’t take your life through unending incarceration,” Fetterman said Friday after voting concluded. “Because of mandatory sentences in some cases, the people who actually killed are released before those who didn’t. We need to decide when enough is enough.”
Among those whose applications were forwarded to the governor is 65-year-old Eugene L. Grannison, who has served 38 years in prison on a second-degree murder conviction. Grannison was the getaway driver in a 1982 bank robbery in Sharon, PA. He was not in the building when an accomplice shot and killed a person, and he turned himself into authorities after he learned about the murder. Though he didn’t commit the homicide, he was charged with second-degree murder, which comes with a life sentence.
Fetterman said his oversight of the Board of Pardons represents a shift in thinking decades after stunned officials clammed up and nearly shut off the clemency process for lifers.
Hundreds of commutations were approved between the 1970s and the 1990s, until commuted lifer Reginald McFadden went on a murder spree days after his release.
In the years after his release, between the early 90s and 2014, the pardons process was tightened, the unanimous-vote requirement was created, and only a handful of commutations had been granted.
“What he did was an unthinkable tragedy for the victims and the victims’ families,” Fetterman said. “It was also an injustice to people who do deserve a second chance. We can’t stop believing in second chances for everyone.”
Fetterman supports bipartisan efforts to change the state’s constitution to reduce the required unanimous vote to 4-1. Prior to McFadden’s spree, the required majority was 3-2.
Fetterman said his main concerns are giving people a chance to reestablish lives and contribute to their communities and righting the inequity of sentences that make killers serve less time than accomplices who didn’t kill.
It costs the state about $70,000 per year to imprison lifers in correctional facilities.
Fetterman has taken numerous steps to improve the clemency process in Pennsylvania, including rewriting the application to make it more user-friendly and reducing the required application fee to zero dollars.
While the Board of Pardons handles all requests for clemency in Pennsylvania, pardons are different from commutations. Commutations are granted for people who are still in prison, while pardons apply to those who are not currently incarcerated for the crime for which they’re requesting clemency.
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