A sheriff featured in an ad defending U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman accurately states that Fetterman “voted with law enforcement experts nearly 90% of the time” on the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, and voted to give “a second chance” to nonviolent offenders. But it’s what the ad doesn’t say that may mislead viewers.
Reviewing just commutation cases for inmates serving life sentences, we found that Fetterman and the board’s corrections expert voted the same 69% of the time. There were 26 times when Fetterman voted to commute life sentences — mostly for first- or second-degree murder — and the law enforcement expert voted not to.
The sheriff also says, “John gave a second chance to those who deserved it. Nonviolent offenders, marijuana users.” As Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, Fetterman has worked with the governor to expedite pardon applications for those with nonviolent marijuana convictions. But the ad may leave the mistaken impression that Fetterman only extended leniency to nonviolent offenders and marijuana users, when Fetterman has voted to extend pardons and commutations to people convicted of violent crimes, including first-degree murder.
Fetterman’s Republican opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, and groups that support him have pounded the airwaves with ads and social media posts — some of them misleading — that seek to paint Fetterman as soft on crime. The ads have focused on Fetterman’s role as the chairman of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, which makes recommendations to the governor about pardons and clemency applications from inmates serving life sentences.
Fetterman has been an unabashed advocate for giving some prisoners a second chance.
“One of the things that I believe in most strongly is the power of a second chance, and as the chair of the Board of Pardons in Pennsylvania, delivering that has been one of the things that I’m most proud of,” Fetterman says in a video on his campaign website.
With Fetterman as chair, the board has recommended 50 commutations of life sentences, and Gov. Tom Wolf granted 47 of them, according to statistics published by the Board of Pardons. In the four years prior to Fetterman becoming lieutenant governor, the board recommended the commutation of just six life sentences.
“Since 2019, they’ve recommended more citizens for commutation than in the past 25 years combined,” Fetterman’s campaign website boasts of board members.
Fetterman last spring told supporters he ran for lieutenant governor in 2018 specifically to lead the Board of Pardons, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“You have an opportunity to really make a big impact on second chances,” Fetterman said. “That, to me, means everything. You have an opportunity to decide what direction we take in our society. Should you pay for the rest of your life for a mistake that you made if you were addicted or you were young, or you were in poverty?”
Ads from Oz and his supporters have highlighted cases in which Fetterman has advocated the release of murderers, including six times when he was the sole vote on the five-member board. A unanimous vote is needed for the case to move to the governor, who makes the ultimate call on commutations. And as we said, some of these attacks have gone too far.
“I’m sick of Oz talking about John Fetterman and crime,” Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, Sheriff Sean Kilkenny, a Democrat, says in the ad released by the Fetterman campaign this week. “Here’s the truth: John gave a second chance to those who deserved it. Nonviolent offenders, marijuana users. He voted with law enforcement experts nearly 90% of the time. He reunited families and protected our freedom. And he saved taxpayer money.”
It’s true that Fetterman and Wolf have tried to make it easier for those convicted of nonviolent marijuana offenses to get pardons. In 2019, Fetterman worked to streamline applications for pardons from people convicted of low-level marijuana offenses.
“Anyone with a marijuana-related, nonviolent possession or paraphernalia charge is encouraged to apply for a pardon, for free, and have his or her application expedited,” Fetterman said at the time. “Given the favorable sentiment to legalizing marijuana, there’s no reason records of this nature should continue to hinder people from living their most productive lives.”
And on Sept. 1, Wolf and Fetterman announced “a coordinated effort for a one-time, large-scale pardoning project for people with select minor, non-violent marijuana criminal convictions,” saying that “thousands” of Pennsylvanians with convictions for possession of marijuana would be eligible, according to a press release from Wolf.
“Fetterman said the project will deliver second chances to thousands of deserving Pennsylvanians who are trying to improve their lives amidst the legislature’s refusal to ‘take the commonsense approach and just legalize it,’” the press release said.
“Nobody should be turned down for a job, housing, or volunteering at your child’s school because of some old nonviolent weed charge, especially given that most of us don’t even think this should be illegal,” Fetterman said.
So there is no question Fetterman has fought for “a second chance” for “nonviolent offenders, marijuana users,” as Kilkenny said in the Fetterman ad. But those aren’t the only offenders for whom Fetterman has sought leniency.
In fact, Fetterman has voted for “a second chance” for inmates who committed violent crimes, including murder, years or decades ago. We wrote about one of them, Wayne Covington, whose conviction for shooting and killing an 18-year-old man during a robbery in 1969 was featured in a Republican super PAC ad attacking Fetterman.
Covington pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. We noted that Covington, now 73, was 19 years old when he killed the man. He has spent more than 50 years in prison, and he is in poor health. In 1991, the state Corrections Commissioner deemed Covington a “minimal” public safety risk if he were released. Fetterman was the lone vote on the Board of Pardons to commute Covington’s sentence, and so he was not released.
Fetterman was also the lone vote to commute the sentence of John D. Brookins, who was sentenced to life in prison for murder for the 1990 killing of a Bucks County woman who prosecutors say was strangled and stabbed with a pair of scissors. Fetterman argued at the Board of Pardons hearing that investigators ought to test the weapon for DNA evidence. Brookins maintains that would prove his innocence, though the Bucks County district attorney disagrees.
“I don’t know if John Brookins is innocent or not,” Fetterman tweeted on March 3, 2021. “I’m not claiming he is. I want to know what the DNA says. If this was your son, father, brother or husband wouldn’t you? A flawless prison record over 30 years and the DA refuses to test the murder weapon for DNA. Why?”
The Fetterman ad, through Kilkenny, makes the case that these were anomalies, that on the Board of Pardons, Fetterman has “voted with law enforcement experts nearly 90% of the time.”
The Board of Pardons has five members, including the lieutenant governor (who chairs the board), the state attorney general (in this case Josh Shapiro, who is currently running for governor), and three members appointed by the governor, subject to the advice and consent of the state Senate, who are to include “a crime victim; a corrections expert; and a doctor of medicine, psychiatrist, or psychologist,” according to the Board of Pardons website. Harris Gubernick, the former director of the Bucks County Department of Corrections, currently fills the role as the “corrections expert” on the board. Gubernick was appointed to the board by former Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, in 2011. He was reappointed in 2018 with a unanimous vote by the Republican-controlled Senate.
The Fetterman campaign says Kilkenny was referring to votes in sync with Gubernick when he said, Fetterman has “voted with law enforcement experts nearly 90% of the time.”
The Fetterman campaign provided us data obtained from the Board of Pardons via a Freedom of Information Act request that show vote records related to board decisions to recommend or deny pardons and commutations between March 13, 2019, and Aug. 3, 2022. In all, the data show that Fetterman and Gubernick were both present and voted on 1,776 clemency applications. Nearly 87% of the time, the data show, Fetterman and Gubernick voted the same way to either recommend or deny the application. That’s the source of the 90% figure cited in the ad.
One caveat: The vast majority of the votes used for that calculation, 88%, were pardon votes. Any person convicted of a crime, nonviolent or not, can seek a pardon. According to the Board of Pardons, “A pardon relieves an individual of the consequences, generally in the nature of legal disabilities, resulting from conviction for a crime. … A pardon constitutes total forgiveness by the state, makes the crime as if it never happened and allows a job applicant to deny he was ever convicted of the crime without worry of any sanction.”
Many of the attacks on Fetterman from the Oz camp, however, have focused on Fetterman’s votes to commute life sentences. In Pennsylvania, there is no parole for those serving life sentences, and commutations are the only avenue for release. Those granted commutations are generally placed on parole upon their release.
(As we have explained in a previous article, Fetterman has said he wants to eliminate mandatory life sentences for people convicted of second-degree murder. Pennsylvania is one of just eight states that have a mandatory life sentence without parole for second-degree murder convictions. According to Pennsylvania law, second-degree murder applies when someone dies related to a felony, and can include people who were accomplices to those crimes.)
Breaking out just the cases where inmates serving life sentences were seeking a commutation, Gubernick and Fetterman voted together on 85 of them. In those cases, Fetterman and Gubernick were in agreement to recommend or deny the application about 69% of the time (42 times they both voted to recommend, and 17 times they both voted to deny). On 26 occasions, Fetterman voted to commute a life sentence when Gubernick voted against it. In six of those cases — many of them highlighted by Oz and his supporters on social media — Fetterman was the lone vote on the board recommending release of the inmate.
The Fetterman campaign told us in an email that the ad is “not meant to suggest Fetterman only extended second chances to nonviolent offenders and marijuana users,” only that these were two examples of people who deserved second chances. The campaign said that in addition, “John also gave second chances to others ‘who deserve it’ such as the wrongfully convicted, and deserving long-time inmates but in a 30 second ad we don’t have time to specify every class of person he helped get second chances.”
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