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Thousands Are Serving Life Without Parole Sentences in Pennsylvania. A Board Of Pardons Hearing Might Begin To Change That.

People seeking commutations from life sentences encounter a steep hurdle in the state’s board of pardons. The board will convene on Sept. 13 to review more than 20 cases.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Thousands Are Serving Life Without Parole Sentences in Pennsylvania. A Board Of Pardons Hearing Might Begin To Change That.

People seeking commutations from life sentences encounter a steep hurdle in the state’s board of pardons. The board will convene on Sept. 13 to review more than 20 cases.

On Feb. 13, 1991, Terri-Joell Harper planned to celebrate Valentine’s Day with her boyfriend Donnell Drinks by going out for a night on the town in Philadelphia.

Harper was excited to spend the evening with Drinks and looking forward to the future: She had completed the police academy and recently joined the Philadelphia Police Department.

Before the night began, Drinks—who had showered Harper with gifts and convinced her that he was a successful, older businessman—said he had to collect a debt. The two then drove to the Philadelphia home of Darryl Huntley and waited for more than two hours for him to arrive.

Around 11 p.m., Huntley and his girlfriend returned home. Harper, then 22, and Drinks, then 17, forced them inside at gunpoint with intent to rob them. Drinks handcuffed Huntley and took him upstairs while Harper filled bags with items from the home.

But when Huntley slipped out of his handcuffs, he grabbed Drinks’s gun and shot him. Drinks then pulled a knife and stabbed Huntley, who later died from his injuries. 

At the time, Harper’s attorney described her as an unwitting accomplice to murder taken on a “rollercoaster ride from hell” by Drinks.

In December 1992, Harper pleaded guilty to second-degree murder under the felony-murder doctrine which punishes people for murder when a death occurs during the commission of a felony. A Philadelphia judge sentenced her to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In 1993, Drinks was convicted of first-degree murder and also sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. But in April 2018, he was resentenced and later released on parole. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed mandatory life sentences for children to be unconstitutional, and in 2016 the court made that ruling retroactive.

Because Harper was an adult at the time of the offense, she is not eligible for resentencing. After serving more than 25 years in prison, her only hope for freedom is a commutation from Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf.

But before Harper’s case goes before the governor, she must receive approval from all five members of the state Board of Pardons, which is composed of the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, a victims’ advocate, a corrections expert, and a psychiatrist. In 2017 and 2018, seven of nine people who requested commutations had their request denied.

On Friday, Harper’s case will be among 21 heard by the board. The hearings will nearly double the number of commutations from life sentences considered by the board since Governor Wolf took office in 2015.

In 1974, there were fewer than 500 people serving life without parole in Pennsylvania. There are now more than 5,400 people doing life in Pennsylvania, one of the highest rates of life without parole sentences in the country. Most of Pennsylvania’s lifers will die behind bars if the Board of Pardons does not recommend a commutation to the governor. And a single vote against commutation is sufficient to prevent a recommendation to the governor.

In December 2017, Attorney General Josh Shapiro cast the lone dissenting vote against a commutation for William “Smitty” Smith, then 76. He had been incarcerated for nearly 50 years for serving as an accomplice in a 1968 robbery that left one man dead and another permanently injured. In 1992, the board recommended Smith for a commutation, which Governor Bob Casey never approved. In 2017, advocates blasted Shapiro’s vote, and in May 2018 he reversed course and approved Smith’s commutation.

“We have inmates in our system who have done 40 years and never taken a life directly,” Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who chairs the Board of Pardons, told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I think it’s critical that we examine that and, when it merits it, make sure we give them another chance to rebuild their lives and contribute to society.”

Fetterman, who took office in January and ran on a criminal justice reform platform, said he supports a soon to be introduced state constitutional amendment that would allow commutation recommendations with a vote of at least four to one. 

The path to commutations has not always been uncertain in Pennsylvania. From 1971 to 1978, approximately 730 people received hearings to have life sentences commuted, and more than a third were recommended to Governor Milton Shapp, who approved nearly all of them. More life sentences were commuted during Shapp’s eight years in office than have been in the 40 years since.

Since 2003, fewer than 40 people have received hearings in front of the board for commutations of life sentences, and only 16 received commutations from the governor. Governor Wolf granted 11 of those commutations.

Pennsylvania is not the only state that offers little hope for people serving life in prison. Since 2016, more than 6,400 applications for reduced sentences were submitted to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. But as of early August, Cuomo approved only 18.

“People grow and change, and the evidence is clear that older people are wiser, calmer and less likely to break the law,” John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham University Law School, said. “Our harsh punishments—even when imposed on those who have committed serious violence— ignore all of this and simply throw lives away. Vengeance and justice are not the same thing, however much our policies often seem to suggest they are.”

Harper says that the crime for which she was convicted does not define her, and that she has strived to make amends for it and become a better person as she serves what she once described as a “death sentence slow and true. One that zaps your pride, esteem, courage, and hope, if you let it, but one that also leads you to face your mortality.”

“If I had [the governor’s] ear for 10 minutes I would tell him that I am a human being, created to do right and wrong, who did wrong and is on the right path and am in need of his open mind on growth, change, and new beginnings,” she wrote in a 2014 letter shared with the advocacy group LifeLines: Voices Against the Other Death Penalty. “I’d ask him to be totally honest with himself about the reality of our judicial system, the failure of the commutation process, the disparities in sentencing and the lack of range in programming for those of us serving major time, and ask him to do something.”