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Columbus Activists Turn Out to Support ‘Black Pride 4’ Protesters During Sentencing

Local supporters rally for the Black Pride 4 on the eve of their sentencing, part of a national day of action.
Credit: Prince Shakur

Columbus Activists Turn Out to Support ‘Black Pride 4’ Protesters During Sentencing

On March 13, roughly two dozen community activists and supporters gathered outside a courtroom in Franklin County Municipal Court to support four young activists accused of disrupting last June’s pride parade in Columbus, Ohio.

The Black Pride 4 — Wriply Bennet, Ashton Braxton, Deandre Miles-Hercules, and Kendall Denton — and six other activists blocked the path of the parade for seven minutes last June “to protest the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez, the Minnesota police officer who killed Philando Castile in 2016, as well as to shed light on the lack of safe spaces for black and brown people in the LGBTQIA+ community,” according to their press release.

Three out of four of those arrested were sentenced Wednesday to two years of probation and dozens of hours of community service; two of them were fined. They were told by Judge Cynthia Ebner that if they completed half of their community service hours, they could request to have their probation and remaining community service requirement lifted.

Constance Gadell-Newton, the attorney who represents Bennet, said that’s not the result she hoped for. “Although there was no jail time imposed immediately, probation is very burdensome,” she told The Appeal after the sentencing. “There is always the potential of future jail time that could come out of that, so I was very disappointed.”

The day before the sentencing, a crowd of over 100 people gathered for the “Columbus Is Guilty” rally and march at Columbus City Hall. The action, which was organized by Black Queer and Intersectional Columbus, was meant “to show solidarity with the #BlackPride4 and continue to shame CPD [the Columbus police department] and Stonewall [the group that organizes the annual pride parade] for their blatant disregard for Black lives.”

Protesters hold signs during Columbus Is Guilty Rally in Columbus, OH.
Credit: Prince Shakur
Dkeama Alexis, co-founder of Black Queer and Intersectional Columbus, speaks to crowd during Columbus Is Guilty rally.
Credit: Prince Shakur

“We’re dealing with an increasingly hostile [Trump] administration. We’re seeing what that looks like for us here on the ground,” said Aaryn Lang, movement building and campaign manager for national LGBT organization GetEQUAL, who helped organize the national day of solidarity. “They’re trying to make an example out of [the] Black Pride 4 and I hope you all are paying attention.”

After being arrested at the June parade, the protesters — all of whom are people of color and two of whom identify as transgender — faced a range of charges including disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, and were held for several hours before being booked by Franklin County. Bennet said she was misgendered by Columbus police officers, placed in a men’s facility, and kept in solitary confinement during her day in jail. Miles-Hercules’s bail was initially set at $100,000 as they, who has not yet been indicted, could face more serious charges, including aggravated robbery, for allegedly attempting to take an officer’s weapon.

After bail was posted for all four protesters with the help of online fundraisers, the eight-month journey to trial began. On February 12, three of the four arrestees — Bennet, Braxton, and Denton — were found guilty of six out of eight charges by a mostly white jury after a five-day trial.

Meanwhile, community organizers have led efforts to support the the protesters, hosting marches and petitions drops and disrupting a community conversation set up by Stonewall Columbus about the arrests to call out the organization for not fulfilling its promise to support the Black Pride 4.

Lori Gum, former program director for Stonewall Columbus, resigned just days after the protest, citing the organization’s lack of effort to help the arrested protesters. Gum joined Stonewall Columbus in 2011 and created the “InsideOUT” program to help incarcerated people start their own LGBTQ support groups. She told The Appeal that the connection between mass incarceration and the LGBTQ was something that Stonewall Columbus “didn’t even know about.”

Stonewall Columbus did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

“I watched to see how the community and Stonewall handled this, and it was handled horribly,” Gum noted, “So it makes me afraid truly of where this city is going with … racial relations, but particularly people of color and [their] relations with CPD.”

Mike Brickner, senior policy director of ACLU of Ohio, said this isn’t the first time people of color in Ohio were treated unfairly by police officers for expressing dissent. In 2015, his organization filed a lawsuit against the city of Cleveland over protests stemming from a different police brutality case.

“Oftentimes, they [people of color] encounter more obstacles when trying to protest in public spaces, when organizing. We have to have a recognition from the very beginning that racial justice and free speech have a clear intersection here.”

The trial against the Black Pride 4 comes amid criticisms of the Columbus Division of Police for using excessive force, particularly against people of color. Between January 2013 and December 2017, the Columbus police killed 28 people, 21 of whom were Black, and over two dozen lawsuits are currently filed against the department, many claiming civil rights violations.

Recent high-profile deaths of Black residents at the hands of the police include Tyre King and Henry Green. King, a 13-year-old, was killed by a Columbus police officer while he reportedly had a BB gun and was running away. Green, 23, was shot seven times by two plainclothes Columbus police officers and then handcuffed.

Officer Zachary Rosen, who was involved in Green’s death, reportedly had a history of aggressive behavior and was fired in 2017 after video surfaced of him stomping on the head of a handcuffed man. Earlier this month, Rosen was reinstated to the police department, a decision that prompted community members to post flyers warning of Rosen’s “suspicious behavior” as an officer. Additionally, video of Columbus police officers tasering a pregnant woman in a jail cell prompted a rebuke by the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, who called such incidents “grave abuse.”

The office of Police Chief Kim Jacobs did not respond to requests for comment on the Black Pride 4 by press time. But previous interviews with Jacobs shed light on her leadership style. Jacobs spoke about working for the department’s complaint line, for instance, saying it taught her that most people who called in to file complaints “think [an officer’s actions] might be wrong, and they need clarification.” When asked about community distrust of the police, Chief Jacobs recommended that residents should simply comply with officer commands.

“When you fight us, first of all, you’re committing a crime, and if it turns into an assault, you’re committing a felony,” she told Columbus Alive in 2016, “It’s much easier to just go along with the program and then use the justice system to resolve issues that you have.”

But Dkeama Alexis, co-founder of BQIC, says “going along” with the police hasn’t worked for them and other activists. “Organizing for the #BlackPride4 showed me that you can grind nonstop for months trying to get justice,” Alexis said, “but that the criminal injustice system is so much of a ruthless machine, that you can still lose.”

Prior to the parade, Stonewall Columbus was on “high alert” following the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida and an anti-gay post on Facebook by a Columbus City School District employee who said he wished the 2017 parade would turn out like the “Boston Marathon.” As a result, roughly $25,000 was spent on special duty officers, private security, and undercover officers for the pride event. Deputy Chief Michael Woods noted just two days before the June 17 pride parade that the extra officers would be on the lookout for “strange behavior.”

After the arrests of the Black Pride 4, community members called on Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein to drop the charges against the four activists, since prosecutors have full discretion to pursue or drop such charges.

But Deputy Chief Prosecutor Joseph Gibson told The Appeal his office had public safety in mind, particularly after the Pulse nightclub shooting. “This wasn’t an ideological prosecution,” he said. “It was a prosecution where laws were broken and police filed the charges and we prosecuted them without regard to the message.”

In the wake of Tuesday’s sentencing, one of the Black Pride 4, Kendall Denton, was clear about the need for continued community support.“We got one more [who hasn’t faced trial],” Denton said. “We have to make sure that the support that came out for us, comes out for Deandre as well.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with Aaryn Lang’s job title.

Anti-Online Trafficking Bills Advance in Congress, Despite Opposition from Survivors Themselves

On Tuesday, Ivanka Trump hosted supporters of the legislation in the White House’s Roosevelt Room.

Anti-Online Trafficking Bills Advance in Congress, Despite Opposition from Survivors Themselves

This week, the Senate is expected to vote on a bill that could shutter websites that host sex-for-sale ads. The bill, known as SESTA — the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act — has been described by its supporters as a way to provide justice to victims of human trafficking by making it easier for them to file civil suits against the sites. However, a growing coalition of survivors of trafficking, sex workers, and women’s and LGBT rights groups oppose SESTA, saying it will endanger those it is meant to help.

SESTA’s companion bill passed the House of Representatives last week, racking up 388 votes in favor, with 25 opposing votes from both Democrats and Republicans. The House bill, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (or FOSTA), would give state attorneys general the power to bring criminal prosecutions against people who operate websites “with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” As FOSTA’s original sponsor Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO) described the bill during a floor speech, it would “put those bad actor websites behind bars.”

SESTA, the Senate bill, is currently supported by a seemingly disparate coalition: anti-sex work groups, some anti-trafficking services, religious right groups, and some women’s rights groups. Though they originally opposed it on the grounds that it would compromise free speech online, most major tech companies now back SESTA. The bill has also won a personal endorsement from Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.

Should FOSTA and SESTA become law, anyone engaged in the sex trade — whether through choice, circumstance, or coercion — risks losing access to websites like Backpage and others that connect them to work. Advocates say this would be a direct attack on sex workers’ ability to continue doing sex work on their own terms, and risk making people in the sex trades more vulnerable to trafficking.

Empowering Prosecutors, Eradicating the Sex Trade

FOSTA and SESTA are significant not only for what conduct they seek to outlaw, but for whose power they extend. Though FOSTA expands the Mann Act, criminalizing the act of “facilitating” prostitution online, using and operating a website to “facilitate” prostitution is already a federal crime under the Travel Act (with which the popular men’s escort site was prosecuted). But FOSTA goes much further — it hands the power to prosecute website operators to state attorneys general. State AGs have long demanded action against online ads for sexual services. In 2008, then-Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal led an effort by 40 state AGs against Craigslist over its Adult Services section. Blumenthal, a Democratic senator, introduced SESTA along with Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) in 2017.

Supporters of the legislation say that by permitting legal action by or on behalf of those who were advertised on such websites, it will make websites themselves liable for trafficking. One lobbying group urged people to spread the message, “People are not products. Stop selling them online.” Another was more blunt: “Stop internet companies from enabling child rape.”

Driving such messages are groups who have long lobbied the U.S. government to further criminalize the sex trade, including those behind the new organization World Without Exploitation (WWE), helmed by former Brooklyn prosecutor Lauren Hersh. That group was founded in part by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), which has organized women’s rights activists as far back as the Clinton administration not just against trafficking, but to press governments to define all commercial sex as trafficking. CATW sees sex workers’ rights advocates — and their prominent allies, like Amnesty International, as its opposition; in fact, CATW will not use the term “sex work.”

“The truth is that what we call sex trafficking is nothing more or less than globalized prostitution,” CATW co-director Dorchen Leidholdt — now head of legal services at Sanctuary for Families, another WWE co-founder — remarkedat an anti-“demand” conference in 2003. “What most people refer to as ‘prostitution,’” Leidholdt added, “is usually domestic trafficking.” For these groups, SESTA is another step in a decades-long fight against sex work that hinges on explicitly collapsing any legal difference between sex work and trafficking. WWE founding co-chair Anne K. Ream describes SESTA as a law that “will strike a blow to those who buy and sell other human beings.” In a January Senate briefing, WWE’s talking points on SESTA said what they really wanted was an end to the “global sex trade.”

Along with lobby groups like WWE, an anti-Backpage documentary I Am Jane Doe also helped create demand for SESTA and FOSTA. Original SESTA co-sponsor Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) has hosted screenings of the film in his home state. The film’s director, Mary Mazzio, has become a prominent advocate of the legislation, producing a PSA with comedians Amy Schumer and Seth Meyers telling the camera, “#IAmJaneDoe.”

As FOSTA neared a vote in the House earlier this month, Mazzio’s production company used its marketing lists for lobbying, sending out a sign-on letteraimed at Congressional representatives to the film’s supporters. The I Am Jane Doe letter garnered support from groups like Expose Sex Ed Now, which advocates against comprehensive sex education, along with the National Decency Coalition, The Institute on Religion & Democracy, and Family Watch International, groups that lobby for the “traditional” family and who oppose abortion. Another signer, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (formerly known as Morality in Media), has long led its own anti-sex work campaigns, blaming pornography for trafficking.

House Republicans have borrowed from these groups in their arguments for FOSTA. In his floor speech ahead of the FOSTA vote, Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) said human trafficking was about “wicked men and women” who “turn vulnerable young people into sexual commodities.” Rep. John Duncan, Jr. (R-TN) blamed “family breakdown” and “addicting our children to computers” for human trafficking. Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) called traffickers “filthy criminals” while standing in front of a mug shot of a Latina woman.

Some women’s rights groups and advocates who might typically oppose such religious right groups became their allies on SESTA and FOSTA. In addition to making the rounds among anti-abortion, pro-“family” organizations, the I Am Jane Doe letter was also circulated by the women’s rights organization Legal Momentum, a SESTA supporter. Nation columnist Katha Pollitt, who signed the letter, told The Appeal she didn’t know about the bill’s right-wing supporters since she received it from Legal Momentum. But she didn’t think it was fair, she said, to hold the signatories responsible for each other’s politics, adding, “Sometimes the bitterest enemies agree about one thing.”

Survivors Against SESTA

While alliances across the political spectrum have formed in support of the legislation, trafficking survivors and their advocates largely oppose it. They have told The Appeal that trying to outlaw websites like Backpage is not the same thing as fighting trafficking or supporting survivors. In fact, it can have the opposite effect: putting victims of trafficking in danger.

The legislation’s most immediate impact might be a chilling effect on website operators, leading them to preemptively crack down on content posted by sex workers. “SESTA is about making internet platforms afraid to host ads for the sex industry,” Kate D’Adamo, a partner with Reframe Health and Justice, told The Appeal. And that could leave sex workers in more dangerous situations, she said. FOSTA is currently broad enough to possibly apply to content sex workers share online to ensure safer working conditions, like “bad date” lists, client screening tools, and safer sex education. FOSTA, said D’Adamo, could “threaten the harm reduction mechanisms people are using to stay safe when working, but none of that matters if you don’t have access to a safer space [to advertise] anyway.”

Nina Besser Doorley, a senior program officer at the International Women’s Health Coalition, echoed her concerns. “By taking away one of the few tools that sex workers have to organize and to screen clients, this bill increases sex workers’ risk of violence, making it harder to identify and support survivors,” she said.

The Freedom Network, the largest national network of anti-trafficking service providers and advocates, also opposes the bills. “Further criminalizing consensual commercial sex work, where there is no force, fraud or coercion, is no way to protect victims,” the group states in a press release. “Websites have an instrumental role to play in the investigation and prosecution of traffickers. They should be further incentivized and encouraged to report potential signs of human trafficking (both labor and sex trafficking of adults and minors) and child exploitation.” FOSTA and SESTA, advocates say, could make such sites less willing to participate in investigations, or, by pushing the sites to shut down, eliminate them as an investigative tool in identifying victims.

Their closure could also leave these workers more vulnerable to homelessness, arrest, and violence, said Caty Simon, a harm reduction activist and sex worker in Western Massachusetts. She expressed fear for the community she serves, which includes sex workers who use drugs. “Some of these women have recently clawed their way into the lowest rung of indoor work and out of homelessness, posting online while overpaying for a motel room every night,” she told The Appeal. “They’re still unstably housed and they’re still dealing with all of the bullshit of criminalization and poverty, but still, they tell me they are much safer and their quality of life is much improved. SESTA will send these women back to the abusive managers, cop violence, rape, and monotonous misery of street work.”

LGBT rights groups share these concerns about abuse and criminalization. Sex workers and trafficking victims alike “would be subjected to increased violence, exploitation, and more incarceration,” said Tyrone Hanley, policy counsel at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) also opposes the legislation. “Widespread discrimination leads many transgender people to engage in sex work to get by, and this legislation would make it even harder for them to keep themselves safe and find other economic opportunities if they choose,” said Kory J. Masen, racial and economic justice policy advocate at NCTE. “Limiting their access to safe working conditions and resources will exacerbate the problems of human trafficking, violence against women, and public health.”

Groups like NCLR and NCTE are relatively new to this conversation. They are among a range of national organizations that have not typically taken a stance on legislation that could harm sex workers but are now backing the cause. Meanwhile, sex workers and survivors of trafficking are leading a grassroots campaign (under the hashtags #LetUsSurvive and #SurvivorsAgainstSESTA). They are calling their senators and educating the public using social media. On Tuesday, NCTE and NCLR joined them to lead a SESTA briefing for Senate staffers.

Up to this point, opposition to these bills was primarily seen as coming from tech companies and their interest groups, who the legislation’s supporters claimed were willing to sacrifice women and children’s safety for “profit.” However, with opposition from national women’s and LGBT health and rights groups, it is clear the opposition is not just about tech companies’ attempts to protect themselves and their own bottom line. Besides, the Internet Association, a trade group that represents almost every major internet business — from Twitter to Amazon to PayPal to Netflix to Airbnb, and even Google — says that after certain changes were made to the legislation, its members are now in support.

The legislation’s opponents face an uphill climb. The alliance of anti-sex work women’s groups and religious right groups pushing SESTA and FOSTA has long been instrumental in winning bipartisan backing for these kinds of “anti-trafficking” bills in Congress, part of advancing a shared anti-sex work agenda. Yet in this case, perhaps the most significant coalition-building support came from Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, architect of the women’s empowerment platform Sandberg’s endorsement, straddling feminism and Silicon Valley, even found its way into the daily email alert from House Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) on the morning FOSTA went for a floor vote.

If women’s rights and religious right groups could make common cause, so could Sheryl Sandberg and Ivanka Trump, another prominent supporter of the legislation. The first daughter, the White House said earlier this month, has met with trafficking survivors — along with the president. This administration, his press secretary insisted, will “ensure survivors have the support they need.” On Tuesday, Ivanka Trump gathered SESTA and FOSTA co-sponsors in the Roosevelt Room, along with I Am Jane Doe director Mazzio. “On behalf of the president,” Trump thanked the roundtable participants for their work “to end the shameful and tragic crime of online sex trafficking.”

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Pennsylvania Democratic Attorney General Shuts Down Bids for Freedom

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro
Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

Pennsylvania Democratic Attorney General Shuts Down Bids for Freedom

Pennsylvania’s Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro may be eyeing a run at the governor’s office in 2022, yet his law-and-order voting record on the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons suggests that he is playing to Democratic primary voters of a bygone tough-on-crime era.

Last November, Philadelphians elected Larry Krasner, an outspoken civil rights lawyer who pledged to fight mass incarceration, as district attorney. By contrast, Shapiro is using the power of his office to ensure that some of the lifers most deserving of release — including at least one who has demonstrated that he has been deeply rehabilitated—die in prison.

On December 14, Shapiro denied William “Smitty” Smith, an elderly prisoner from Philadelphia who was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in a 1968 murder, one of his last shots at freedom. In Pennsylvania, lifers are not eligible for parole. As of 2016, Pennsylvania recorded the highest number of prisoners serving life without parole sentences — 5,398 — of any state excluding Florida, according to The Sentencing Project. That’s roughly the same size as the total Pennsylvania prison population in 1968, when the crime was committed. Smith was an accomplice to the crime, has expressed remorse, and the victim’s son has told reporters he is okay with the state offering Smith a second chance. Shapiro dissented from his three colleagues on the Board of Pardons by casting the sole “no” vote on Smith’s application to have that sentence commuted.

Joe Grace, Shapiro’s communications director, told The Appeal that Shapiro would not explain specific votes but that he “examines each commutation application based on the facts and circumstances of each case and the applicant’s desire to atone for his or her crimes … while always standing up for crime victims and every Pennsylvanian’s right to public safety.” When challenged that his vague statement would be an abdication of Shapiro’s responsibility to clearly explain his decisions on the Board of Pardons to the public, he warned, “[b]e careful what you write.” Grace later apologized and said he had not meant the comment as a threat.

Today, Smith is a 76-year-old hobbled by a stroke. In most every sense, he is a different man than the 26-year-old who rushed into a Southwest Philadelphia check-cashing store in 1968 alongside his accomplice William Barksdale, who shot and killed the owner, Charles Ticktin. Smith is a model of rehabilitation who has thrived in prison; his many accomplishments include playing guitar for Power of Attorney, a funky and soulful prison rock band that released an album on Polydor.


Ending mass incarceration will require much more than embracing the non-threatening aspects of criminal justice reform, like reducing sentences for non-violent offenders.

It must include a new approach to violent offenders, who make up roughly half of the state prison population nationwide. As a candidate for Pennsylvania attorney general, Shapiro declared that “the time is now to advance real criminal justice reform.” But a vision of reform that includes condemning Smith to die in prison rings hollow to many observers, given that the tools are available to shorten his imprisonment.

For years, the commutation of life sentences was a commonly used tool to reduce a life sentence in Pennsylvania. Milton Shapp, who was the Democratic governor from 1971–79, commuted 251 sentences. As the war on crime ratcheted up, however, the number of commutations plummeted. Republican Dick Thornburgh, in office from 1979–87 and later picked as President Reagan’s attorney general, commuted just seven. His Democratic successor, Bob Casey, commuted 27. And commutations all but disappeared after 1994, when Governor Casey commuted the life sentence of Reginald McFadden, who went on to kill two and brutally rape another shortly thereafter.

“You met him, and you look into his eyes, you knew that he was deranged,” Tyrone Werts, one of just five lifers to have their sentence commuted under Governor Ed Rendell, said of McFadden when I was reporting my 2014 profile of Smith. “The system saw fit to let him go. But if they would have came around to different prisons [and] said, ‘What do you think about McFadden? You think that he’s a good candidate for commutation?’ ‘Hell no, [don’t] let that crazy motherfucker out.’”

Why, during a law and order era, was such a seemingly horrible candidate for a commutation one of the few to be released? The one person who voted “no,” then Pennsylvania Attorney General Ernie Preate, told me that McFadden was released in part because of his cooperation with correctional authorities during a 1989 uprising at the State Correctional Institute at Camp Hill. Back then, approving a recommendation of commutation to the governor required just a majority vote. That would soon change.

McFadden’s atrocities humiliated then Lt. Governor Mark Singel, who ran in 1994 to succeed Casey as governor and voted “yes” on his commutation application. Republican Tom Ridge beat Singel, running on a tough-on-crime campaign pitched to the maximally punitive political environment of the mid-1990s. George W. Bush later appointed Ridge to be his Department of Homeland Security secretary, calling him “a man of compassion who has seen what evil can do.”

After taking the governor’s office, Ridge launched a special session on crime, and legislators sent voters a successful referendum on commutations: from there on out, the Board of Pardons seat once claimed by a lawyer would go to a victim’s representative instead; more importantly, a commutation recommendation to the governor for those sentenced to life in prison would require a unanimous, and not majority, vote.

In 1992, Smith received just that: a unanimous recommendation that his sentence be commuted. But Governor Casey never signed off. Smith believes that his application was sitting on the governor’s desk as McFadden’s murders dominated the headlines. He continued to apply but was repeatedly rejected, including when Republican Lt. Governor Jim Cawley cast the sole “no” vote to deny his 2008 application. Lt. Governor Singel’s experience with McFadden had become a defining one for Pennsylvania politics, one that shut the prison gates for most lifers.

More recently, it seemed like Smith’s best shot was for Republican Governor Tom Corbett to be voted out of office, and that Cawley would likewise be replaced by a Democrat. That happened after Democrat Tom Wolf knocked Corbett out of office in 2014, and Mike Stack took the lieutenant governor’s seat on the board.

But in December, Shapiro cast a “no” vote.

“We all assumed it was just going to be so easy for Smitty this time with this current administration,” Kathleen Brown, a retired professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading advocate for sentence commutations, told In Justice Today. “So we were very surprised when he said ‘no.’”

In 2016, Brown visited Smith while he was recovering from his stroke at the Laurel Highlands state prison, a medical facility. Surrounded by elderly inmates who were sick and dying, Smith was losing hope. But convinced that he had a good shot at a commutation with Democratic Governor Wolf in office, he fought his way back to wellness.

“I’m just scared that this disappointment is so huge that it will turn his rehabilitation around,” Brown said. “He really worked hard. Now this.”

Indeed, Smith’s son, William Harris, says that his health declined after the hearing and that he couldn’t locate his father within the system for weeks.

Harris, who testified alongside his uncle at the hearing, was stunned by the Shapiro’s no vote. “You just question why the other three said ‘yes,’” he said, “…and one person said ‘no.’ It leaves you empty trying to figure that part out.”

Now, Harris, like Brown, worries that Smith will lose the hope that has kept him alive, and die in prison. He was just a little over a year old when his father was arrested.

But it’s not just Smith who received a “no” vote from Shapiro.

The same night he condemned Smith to a possible death behind bars, he also cast the sole “no” vote to deny commutation to a man named Edward Printup. WGAL, a Pennsylvania NBC affiliate, recently aired a three-part series on his case. Printup, now 57, says that he killed his abusive stepfather in 1980 at age 19 to ward off “another one of his famous beatings.”

“He would just beat my brother literally until he bled down the back of his legs,” his sister, Michele Printup, told WGAL.

“When he shot our stepfather, the abuse stopped.”

In a statement, Lt. Governor Stack called the “no” votes “a stunning disappointment that left me, and many other advocates for criminal justice reform, wondering whether we had lost the momentum toward change and were heading backward.”

“It’s a bad, bad story about a kid who’s undereducated, who’s physically abused,” said Brown. “I believe him when he says the intention was not to kill him. The intention was to scare him off because he knows what’s coming. He shoots him. He dies … no intent, just scared.”

Shapiro’s votes on Printup and Smith suggest that the path out of prison for Pennsylvania lifers remains narrow.

There is, however, another sign of hope. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner recently hired Patricia Cummings, a Texas attorney with a track record of freeing the wrongfully convicted, to overhaul his office’s conviction integrity unit. Recently, Cummings told The Philadelphia Inquirer that “conviction integrity also encompasses fair sentencing” — what observers say would likely be an unprecedented move to ease the harshness of the American criminal justice system. But that might be too late for Smith. His best shot is an upcoming vote at the Board of Pardons to reconsider their decision.

“I hear he has some political aspirations,” Brown said of Shapiro. “I guess I don’t understand enough politics to know how that helps.”

Shapiro seems to believe that combining attacks on Trump — as attorney general, he has signed on to lawsuits targeting the Trump administration — with a conventional tough-on-crime record might shore up the party’s liberal base while appealing to more conservative voters outside the big cities. Lt. Governor Singel’s vote on McFadden, after all, still casts a long, Willie Horton-like shadow over criminal justice politics in Pennsylvania. The possibility that a “yes” vote gone wrong might destroy a political career continues to outweigh the suffering of prisoners who, by every conventional measure, deserve their freedom.

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