Mercy delayed was mercy denied for Bruce Norris. The 69-year-old man died Saturday while waiting for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to approve his application for commutation from a life sentence in prison.
Norris was unanimously recommended to Wolf by the Board of Pardons in December but was still waiting for Wolf to act when he tested positive for COVID-19 last month, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
He is at least the 94th incarcerated person to die from the disease in Pennsylvania prisons and at least the 12th at State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County.
“The tragic and avoidable death of Mr. Norris while awaiting his commutation should trouble the soul of every Pennsylvanian,” Celeste Trusty, Pennsylvania policy director for FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), told The Appeal.
Norris was arrested in June 1975 for participating in a robbery in which a man was killed. He was tried and convicted four months later and ultimately sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The board heard his case in September 2019 but delayed a final vote for more than a year before recommending him to Wolf.
Norris, a father or three, earned a degree from Villanova University during his incarceration. He was one of 13 people the Board of Pardons recommended for commutation from life sentences in 2020. Of that group, Wolf has only signed off on one recommendation.
“Inaction has real-life consequences,” Trusty said. “Mr. Norris’s family should be planning years of birthdays, holidays, and celebrations together. Not a funeral.”
Lyndsay Kensinger, Wolf’s press secretary, said applications for commutations do not go straight to the governor after being approved by the Board of Pardons. Instead, they go through a legal review first and then are considered by Wolf individually.
She noted that the number of applications for commutations have increased since Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, who is chairperson of the Board of Pardons, took office in 2019. No additional resources were allocated for staff to process those applications, she said, so “there is no ability to process the recommendations any faster.”
However, Wolf approved six applications in 2019 in less than 50 days, including three applications that he signed off on in just 32 days.
Seven of the people recommended by the board last year have been waiting more than 150 days for Wolf to take action. Charles Goldblum, whose application went through legal review nearly a year ago, has been waiting for more than 500 days.
Although Wolf has to wait for the Board of Pardons to recommend applications for commutations, he can unilaterally issue reprieves, which allow for the temporary release of people in prison. Advocates have called on him to issue more reprieves to protect vulnerable people in prison from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In response to Norris’s death, the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which provides independent oversight of conditions in jails and prisons in the state, has urged Wolf to approve or deny all of the remaining applications for commutation within 14 days.
“We call on Governor Wolf to act immediately on the many clemency recommendations sitting on his desk,” Claire Shubik-Richards, the prison society’s executive director, told The Appeal. “Especially during a pandemic, this lack of action and seeming indifference is inexcusable.”