STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A court case in Pennsylvania is asking a big question, how long should people stay in prison before they get a second chance? More than 1,000 prisoners are serving life without parole in Pennsylvania. These are people convicted of murder. Although, the evidence shows they never intended to kill anyone. Seventy percent of those people are Black. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been covering the story. And she's on the line. Carrie, good morning.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What's the case?
JOHNSON: The case involves six people in prison who have no chance of parole because the way Pennsylvania law works. But they're hoping to change that and eventually get a way out using the lawsuit. And to report the story, I talked with people involved in this case. Some of them are incarcerated now.
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AUTOMATED VOICE: This is a call from Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution - Dallas. This call is subject to recording and monitoring.
JOHNSON: I met Tyreem Rivers on the phone in November. And his voice was a little muffled.
TYREEM RIVERS: Well, I have two or three masks (laugter) on. I have at least two masks on, so I'm trying to stay safe.
JOHNSON: Staying safe is hard when you're confined with hundreds of other men during a pandemic. Rivers is 43 years old. And he spent more than half his life in prison. He grew up in a rough part of Philadelphia. When he arrived behind bars in 1997, he says he was hooked on drugs and could barely read.
RIVERS: So I never really understood the concept of, you know, life without parole. You know, I didn't shoot nobody. I didn't stab anybody. I didn't rape anybody.
JOHNSON: Here's what he did do, snatch the purse of an 85-year-old woman. She died in the hospital two weeks later from her injuries. The evidence presented at trial suggests he didn't mean to kill her. But that didn't matter under a concept called felony murder. Bret Grote is legal director at the Abolitionist Law Center.
BRET GROTE: The felony murder concept is if a death occurs during the commission of another felony, that is considered a form of murder that's attributed to anybody who participated in the felony regardless of whether they had any criminal intent in regard to the death of the other person.
JOHNSON: In Pennsylvania, that's also known as second-degree murder. Grote is suing the state on behalf of Tyreem Rivers and five other people convicted in their late teens. They've already served a combined 199 years in prison. Their case argues the punishment for felony murder in the state is cruel and unconstitutional under Pennsylvania law. Grote says it means an effective life sentence.
GROTE: People in Pennsylvania who are serving life sentences do not have the possibility of parole. And the only way they are being removed from prison in the overwhelming majority of the cases, is in a body bag.
JOHNSON: Their lawsuit hopes to change that by forcing the state board to grant prisoners parole hearings and to push the state legislature to change the law. Attorney General Josh Shapiro is on the other side of the case. He didn't want to talk on tape. Instead, he sent NPR a statement saying that he's duty-bound to defend the law. But he wants the General Assembly to change it so that second-degree murder doesn't mean an automatic life sentence. Another lawyer for the plaintiffs, Quinn Cozzens, points out another problem with the way the law operates now. Cozzens says 70% of the people serving life for felony murder in Pennsylvania are Black even though only 11% of people who live in the state are Black.
QUINN COZZENS: So that's obviously a huge disparity and something that's indicative of how this punishment is imposed and who it is imposed on and what purpose it serves.
JOHNSON: There is one way for people like Tyreem Rivers to leave prison before they die.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good morning.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good morning, everyone.
JOHN FETTERMAN: We are here today for the public hearing portion of the commutation cases.
JOHNSON: In Pennsylvania, a state pardon board considers those petitions and recommends clemency to the governor. At a public meeting last fall, the board considered the case of the Evans brothers. They've spent 37 years in prison. In 1980, the brothers took part in a carjacking with an antique gun. They dropped off the man whose car they stole at a pay phone booth. Later, the man died of a heart attack. The Evans brothers refused a plea deal. They've now served double the time they would have gone away if they had taken that deal. In a familiar dynamic, the prosecutor and the corrections expert at the board meeting said they didn't have enough information about the men's culpability or their turnaround in prison. Another board member, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, said the stakes were too high to punt.
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FETTERMAN: And that's been my point consistently, is that we err on the side of mercy because the stakes are so high. If he's denied, almost assuredly going to die in prison despite serving four decades in prison.
JOHNSON: Then he called on. Nancy Leichter. Her father Leonard died after that carjacking.
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NANCY LEICHTER: They were 18 and 19-year-old teenagers when they went into prison. And they are now 58 and 59-year-old men. They have accepted responsibility. We believe they have paid their price. And now it's time for them to be released.
JOHNSON: Ultimately, the board voted unanimously to pave the way for the Evans brothers to be released last September. But they're still in prison because Pennsylvania's governor has not signed the paperwork. I spoke with Tyreem Rivers again in early December.
RIVERS: A little under the weather, so to speak. Still optimistic.
JOHNSON: Rivers told me his sense of taste and smell were off. He later tested positive for COVID-19. I asked him what he wanted people to know about him.
RIVERS: OK. So I would like for people to know I am not a bad person. I've made bad decisions in the past. I have a sense of regret and remorse for my actions. And I'm a man of change.
JOHNSON: A few weeks ago, Rivers emailed me. He's feeling a little better, optimistic someday he'll get out of prison, against the odds, and put his paralegal training to use in a case that doesn't involve himself.
INSKEEP: Carrie, thanks for that reporting. I really appreciated hearing all of those different voices. Now, let me ask, how does this story in Pennsylvania fit with the wider national effort to reduce the prison population?
JOHNSON: Yeah. There's been a bipartisan campaign to send fewer people to prison. But that leaves the matter of, what to do with people who are already behind bars? And most of the advocacy and rhetoric has focused on nonviolent drug offenders.
JOHNSON: Criminologists say, though, in order to make a big dent in the prison population, you're not going to do that unless you rethink how to treat people who were convicted of violent crime sometimes long ago, like these people in Pennsylvania, Tyreem Rivers and others. Steve, I'd point out that one of the people who was granted clemency by the pardon board actually died in prison recently in Pennsylvania because the governor had not yet signed the paperwork. So these are big stakes.
INSKEEP: And really emotionally difficult cases to handle. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thank you so much.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
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