Prior to 1994, a person serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania had a fair chance of receiving a commutation from the clemency or a pardon. At that time, a prisoner only needed a 3-2 majority vote from the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons to be recommended for commutation. Unfortunately, one person changed all that.
In 1969, sixteen-year-old Reginald McFadden was convicted of first-degree murder, burglary, and aggravated robbery, along with other crimes, and was sentenced to life in prison. While in prison, he earned his high school equivalency diploma and certificates in haircutting and tree surgery and helped subdue a prison riot. McFadden applied for clemency numerous times over the decades, until finally, the Board of Pardons granted his request in a 4-1 vote. The governor pardoned him in 1994.
Three months after his release, McFadden went on a 92-day crime spree, brutally killing two people, raping another, and stealing and using his victim's credit cards. By 1995, he was back in prison and is currently serving two life sentences.
McFadden's Effect on Clemency in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania lawmakers, abashed before a public furious at McFadden's pardon, made changes to the State constitution in 1997 to requires all five Board members to agree to a commutation recommendation instead of a simple majority.
Many people–especially lifers in prison–saw this high threshold as effectively ending the clemency process because reaching a unanimous agreement is rare. Indeed, between 1997 and 2018, only ten lifers received commutations.
A Fresh Look at Commutation
But change is in the air. With new calls for prison reform across the country and the efforts of Lt. Governor John Fetterman, there has been a bipartisan effort in Pennsylvania to lower the threshold for commutation recommendations once again. What's more, the Board has already implemented several changes to the Pennsylvania clemency process. Among other things, it has made the application process more user-friendly, eliminated the application fee, and expedited the application process for nonviolent marijuana-related offenses.
In February 2021, Governor Wolf commuted the sentence of 13 people from life in prison to life on parole. These included Reid Evans and Wyatt Evans, who, after carjacking a man at gunpoint in 1981, were sentenced to life in prison because their victim died of a heart attack the next day. The death of their carjacking victim turned the charge against them into felony-murder, even though they did not directly cause his death. They served nearly 40 years in prison.
Roughly half of the sentences Governor Wolf has commuted have been for felony-murder convictions.
Might you be eligible for a commutation?
Getting a sentence commuted in Pennsylvania is a complicated legal issue. For your best chance of success, you need an experienced criminal defense lawyer by your side. Reach out to attorney Joseph D. Lento and his team at the Lento Law Firm to learn more about whether you might be a good candidate for having your sentence commuted. Schedule a case consultation by calling 888-535-3686 or by reaching out via the Firm's online form.