A Republican super PAC’s ad labels Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman “dangerously liberal on crime,” citing a case in which Fetterman, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, voted to recommend the commutation of a life sentence for a man convicted of murder in 1970.
The narrator in the ad says, “He shot a teenager in cold blood, killing him for money to buy heroin. And John Fetterman wanted him to walk free. As chairman of the Board of Pardons, Fetterman says he’s trying to get as many criminals out of prison as he can. Over the pleas of the victim’s family, John Fetterman was the only vote to release the murderer, the only one.”
The ad from Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC established by allies of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to support Republican Senate candidates, is referring to the case of Wayne Covington, who was convicted of shooting and killing an 18-year-old man during a robbery in 1969. Covington, who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Nothing in the Senate Leadership Fund ad is factually inaccurate, but since the ad is in high rotation on Pennsylvania’s TV and radio airwaves and on social media — and Fetterman has made criminal justice a centerpiece of his campaign — we thought readers may want to know more of the context of the case.
For example, Covington, 73, was 19 years old when he killed George Rudnycky. 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. And despite Fetterman’s vote, and a recommendation from the state Department of Corrections, Covington was not released.
Covington and a co-defendant, Dennis Cimohowsky, both admitted they planned the robbery of Rudnycky, 18, a co-worker of Cimohowsky’s at Westinghouse Corp., on the morning of June 17, 1969, to get money to buy heroin.
“According to testimony in both Covington’s and Cimohowsky’s cases, Covington met Rudnycky on the Westinghouse parking lot after the intended victim had finished work, and asked him for a ride,” the Delaware County Daily Times reported on Feb. 27, 1971. “Covington lured the man to an isolated area of the marsh, about a mile away, saying he had left his car there. Once in the marsh, Covington was to demand money, then run to Cimohowsky who was waiting in a car nearby. However, Covington said, Rudnycky resisted and in the scuffle a gun Covington had brought to back up the robbery attempt discharged, killing Rudnycky.”
At the trial, prosecutors read a statement from Covington, a part-time rock musician who was involved with the Pagans motorcycle gang, in which he said Cimohowsky told him Rudnycky was supposed to be carrying a large sum of money that he had won in a betting pool. Covington said he ordered Rudnycky out of his car at gunpoint, and that a scuffle ensued. Covington insisted at the trial that he did not think the .38-caliber revolver he was carrying was loaded, and that he only brought it to frighten Rudnycky, according to a Delaware County Daily Times story on June 26, 1970.
Covington testified that he recalled “Cimohowsky first mentioned using a gun, but requested it be unloaded,” according to the newspaper account. He said a third defendant, Donald Hoagland, gave him the gun, and he never checked to see if it had bullets in it. “It was supposed to be unloaded,” Covington testified, adding that he didn’t know the revolver contained bullets until it went off in the struggle with Rudnycky.
At his trial, Cimohowsky admitted that he planned the robbery and picked the victim. But he said it was Covington’s idea to bring a gun — over his objections. Cimohowsky said he finally agreed, but insisted the gun not be loaded. Cimohowsky said Hoagland “was supposed to make sure it was unloaded before he gave it to him [Covington],” according to the Delaware County Daily Times.
Cimohowsky was found guilty of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison. At his sentencing hearing, Assistant District Attorney John R. Graham called Cimohowsky “the principal felon” in the case, according to the Delaware County Daily Times on Feb. 27, 1971. “The triggerman was Covington,” Graham said. “But it was this defendant who selected George Rudnycky as a victim, who procured Covington as the triggerman, who set the procedure up.”
“You did select a tool to commit this, Covington,” the sentencing judge, Joseph W. deFuria said.
Hoagland was sentenced to four months probation for being an accessory after the fact — for disposing of the gun in the Delaware River.
On the third day of his trial in June 1970, after the prosecution had presented all of its evidence, Covington pleaded guilty to first-degree murder.
At his sentencing hearing, Judge Paul E. Sand explained why he opted for life in prison rather than the death penalty for Covington.
“Twenty years of age and a long life ahead of him, and he threw it away by a stupid, idiotic antisocial act,” Sand said, according to a Delaware County Daily Times account on Sept. 19, 1970. “Wayne Covington was weak and easily led on and really as much a victim as the young man who was shot. People say there’s no harm in taking marijuana, that they can stop when they want. But these young people want to keep using it or maybe they turn to heroin, but they don’t have the money so they steal to get it.”
“I feel sorry for Wayne Covington and for the society in which we live,” Sand said.
Twenty-four years into his life sentence, Covington was living in a group of trailers called the Outside Service Unit and working on the prison farm outside the walls of Graterford Prison when he cracked open a rock and found a fossilized footprint from what was later determined to be one of the earliest dinosaurs, a Coelophysis. Paleontologists said the print was some 220 million years old.
Over the ensuing months and with the blessing of prison officials, Covington — who by then had received a bachelor’s degree from Villanova University while in prison — and several other inmates continued to dig and unearthed more than 100 fossilized footprints. Although they were not the first such footprints found in Pennsylvania, Robert Sullivan, the curator of paleontology and geology at the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, told a reporter the finds were significant “because we’re seeing these prints in their stratigraphic context.” They were later displayed at a museum in Harrisburg.
Covington was considered for commutation in 1991, but was denied by the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons.
In an opinion column for the York Daily Record, published on March 10, 1991, Patrick LaForge, who covered the state government for the paper, noted that Covington had since renounced the Pagans and had “repented his crime.”
“Twenty-two years later, State Corrections Commissioner Joseph Lehman told the pardons board that ‘the public safety risk (of releasing Covington) is minimal,'” LaForge wrote. “So did Graterford Prison staff. Dr. James McKenna, a criminology professor at Villanova University for 35 years, testified for the first time in his career in favor of a convict. Covington studied under McKenna from prison, earning associate and bachelor’s degrees in criminology. McKenna said he would hire Covington as a graduate assistant to work for him and toward a master’s degree. In addition to free tuition, Covington would receive a $6,600 stipend.”
Citing a story in the Delaware County Daily Times, LaForge said a pardons case specialist testified before the pardons board that the judge who sentenced Covington to life “had once said he would support commutation.”
“Let’s see. He has a job waiting. He repented his crime. He’s put two decades and two college degrees between himself and that dumb 19-year-old caught up in gangs, drugs and guns,” LaForge wrote. “But the pardons board would rather the state spend $37,000-plus per year to keep the guy in jail. Still, I don’t mean to second-guess the board. It’s just an interesting case. I also wonder if politics — fear of a ‘Willie Horton’ — played any role.” (Willie Horton is a convicted murderer who was released in Massachusetts and then raped a woman and stabbed a man. A 1988 Republican ad blamed Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate for president that year, for the incident.)
Covington’s case was again granted a public hearing before the Board of Pardons on June 24, 2021, this time with Lt. Gov. Fetterman acting as the chair of the board. And as the ad says, the board voted 4-1 to deny Covington’s bid, with Fetterman casting the lone vote to recommend the governor commute Covington’s sentence. A unanimous vote is needed for the case to move to the governor.
The organization said the board secretary read “a letter dated in the year of Mr. Covington’s trial from the presiding Judge, saying he would support a commutation request from Mr. Covington years later.” The group also noted that the Department of Corrections was at the hearing to support Covington’s application.
A March 30 story from Spotlight PA on the soaring cost of sick prisoners and Pennsylvania’s “[b]roken ‘compassionate release’ rules” cited correspondence it had with Covington.
“Covington had a heart attack about 10 years ago,” the Spotlight story states. “He has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, liver problems, and recently started prediabetic medication. He has applied to have his sentence commuted four times, including recently in 2021, he told Spotlight PA.”
Fetterman on Commutations
As we said, Fetterman chairs the state’s Board of Pardons, which considers clemency applications from inmates serving life sentences. The board makes recommendations to the governor, who makes the ultimate call on commutations and pardons.
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?”
With Fetterman as chair, the board has recommended 50 commutations, 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.
As for the ad’s claim that Fetterman “says he’s trying to get as many criminals out of prison as he can,” that quote comes from a Politico profile of Fetterman in April 2021.
Politico, April 16, 2021: [Richard] Garland, an ex-gang member who now works with at-risk youth as an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, asks Fetterman, “How can I help you to keep this moving?”
Fetterman tells him: “Whoever you’re mentoring, whoever you’re talking to—get their shit in yesterday. And I’ll do my best to expedite it as fast as we can because I’m trying to get as many folks out as we can.” He repeatedly stresses the urgency at hand, reminding Garland that his term ends soon: “We have 1.75 years.”
Fetterman has been an unabashed advocate for releasing numerous prisoners serving life sentences. A Philadelphia Inquirer story said some who work with him on the issue said he “can be both a caring activist and a bully.” And, as was the case with Covington, Fetterman has often found himself at odds with other members of the board.
“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. In Covington’s case, he was not able to deliver a release. Covington remains in prison at State Correctional Institution Phoenix.
Senate Leadership Fund announced in early August that it was adding $9.5 million in new spending for the Pennsylvania Senate race, bringing its total investment to over $34 million. Fetterman faces Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz in the Nov. 8 general election to replace Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who is not seeking reelection.
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