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Commutations In Pennsylvania Are Postponed Indefinitely As COVID-19 Spreads

Incarcerated people like John Brookins, who is serving life without the possibility of parole, will have to wait until June or later for a chance at clemency.

Karen and John Brookins in 2016 at SCI Graterford in Pennsylvania.Photo courtesy of Karen Brookins.

In late April, John Brookins had an overnight bag packed and ready, according to his wife Karen Brookins. 

He was awaiting a temporary transfer from State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, to SCI Camp Hill, a prison closer to the Capitol building in Harrisburg, where he was expecting to meet with members of the state Board of Pardons. 

Brookins had applied for a commutation, a form of clemency to reduce his sentence, after serving nearly 28 years of a life without the possibility of parole sentence. He was convicted of killing his friend in 1992 but maintains he did not commit the crime. Several women testified at Brookins’s trial that the victim’s daughter admitted to the killing.

For people serving life without the possibility of parole, a commutation is one of the only options to leave prison. Receiving one in Pennsylvania requires a unanimous vote of approval from the five-person board and final sign-off from the governor.

But on April 28, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman announced commutation hearings were being delayed indefinitely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We want to make it clear that commutations are suspended until the Capitol is reopened,” Fetterman said during a press conference phone call on April 28. The building, where the commutations hearings are held, closed to the public on March 13. 

Fetterman said the state would not hold commutations hearings or interviews with incarcerated people via video. Officials in some other states, like Louisiana, have chosen to continue hearings remotely. 

“We want to make sure we give the prisoners every opportunity to be heard, and this is clearly not the medium to do it,” Fetterman said of video interviews.

Karen Brookins echoed Fetterman’s sentiment: “If you are in someone’s presence, you get a feel for the type of person they are and that would be missing from a video visit.” 

But as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to claim more lives in Pennsylvania, she said she was concerned that Brookins does not have time to wait. The fear of the virus reaching her 55-year-old husband, who has been diagnosed with leukopenia, a condition that can make it difficult to fight infection, is debilitating. “I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I just had this vision of this cloud of virus coming over him into his cell and getting into his body and him not having the strength to fight it.”

Evelyn Reynoso, the wife of Pedro Reynoso, voiced similar concerns. Like Brookins, her husband is incarcerated at SCI Phoenix and is immunocompromised. He is in remission from Stage 3 colon cancer but began showing possible symptoms of the disease again in January, she said.

“He’s getting the same symptoms he had when he was diagnosed with colon cancer,” Evelyn told The Appeal. He is expected to see an oncologist later this month, she said.

Reynoso also maintains his innocence. He was convicted of murder in 1996 in Philadelphia, despite his lawyers presenting evidence at trial that he was in the Dominican Republic at the time of the killing. Since his conviction, one witness has recanted her testimony and the family of one of the victims has stated they don’t believe Pedro was involved.

Advocates have called on Fetterman to reconsider postponing commutations hearings out of concern that people could die while awaiting the chance to be heard.

“It’s unconscionable that Lt. Governor Fetterman is delaying the June public hearing of the Board of Pardons and we call on him to proceed,” Sean Damon, organizing lead for the Amistad Law Project, told The Appeal. 

“It’s entirely possible that due to the delay and the cramped nature of prison life that some of the commutation applicants will get sick from COVID-19 and die and never get the chance to have their case heard by the Board of Pardons,” Damon said. “Lt. Governor Fetterman cannot allow that to happen.”

Commutations hearings are expected to be rescheduled within 30 days of the Capitol reopening, but the state Department of General Services has not set a date for when that will happen.

Reynoso had his public hearing in December, though he is still awaiting a public vote, which was delayed in March and cannot take place until the Capitol reopens. Brookins is expected to have his public commutation hearing in June.

All three people in the state prison system who have died from COVID-19 were incarcerated at SCI Phoenix. Twenty people there have recovered from the virus.

“What are we waiting for, Pedro to die?” his wife said. “And then what? It’s time that we don’t have. COVID-19 is killing the inmates.”