In Part 1 of our discussion on the PBS mini-series The Power of a Pardon, we discussed ongoing efforts to reform the Pennsylvania pardon process and the life-changing effects on three formerly incarcerated people. In Part 2 (Episodes 4 and 5), we reflect on the emotional story of two brothers who were pardoned after serving almost 30 years of their life sentences.
Path From Conviction to Clemency
In 1993, Lee and Dennis Horton were driving around when they decided to pick up their friend Robert Leaf. Unbeknownst to them, Leaf had just committed armed robbery and murdered a man, and the police were following him. The police arrested all three men, and the Horton brothers were charged with second-degree murder. The brothers refused to take a plea deal and were sentenced to life without parole. Leaf was charged with third-degree murder and was eventually paroled in 2008—12 years later, the brothers were still fighting for their freedom.
Over the next decade, the brothers filed several unsuccessful appeals; however, motivated by the words of their grandmother, the brothers made a conscious choice to better themselves and make a positive impact on others. During their incarceration, Dennis and Lee were active in numerous efforts to mentor and lead, including becoming Certified Peer Specialists and Wellness Recovery and Action Plan facilitators. Unfortunately, despite overwhelming staff support for their release, the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons denied the brothers' first pardon application in December 2019. Eventually, the Board recommended the brothers' application, and they were pardoned in February 2021.
Life Sentences and Parole in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania is one of six states that denies parole to people with life sentences, so a pardon is the only way for a “lifer” to regain their freedom. Pennsylvania has been working hard to reform its pardon system, and this includes pardons for lifers. From 1995 to 2014, the Board of Pardons heard 30 applications submitted by lifers, recommended 10 to the governors for a pardon, and the governors granted six pardons. In comparison, from 2015 to the present, the Board heard 79 applications submitted by lifers, recommended 42 for a pardon, and Governor Wolf granted 38 pardons.
Factors Considered for Pardon
Pennsylvania laws do not establish eligibility requirements for clemency, so the Board of Pardons provides a list of factors it has considered in the past to help guide applicants.
Factors considered by the Board include:
- length of time since person committed the crime
- criminal history and seriousness of the offense
- behavior since committing the crime
- completing court requirements (e.g., payment of fines)
- successful rehabilitation
- specific need for the pardon (e.g., identifying a particular job cannot get)
- impact on the victims
Pennsylvania Pardon Attorney
The pardon and expungement process is nuanced and time-consuming—this is not the time to go it alone. Instead, contact Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 to learn more about your options for clemency.