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PA Board of Pardons recommends clemency for 8 lifers, including 3 women

Philadelphia Inquirer logo Philadelphia Inquirer 9/4/2020 By Samantha Melamed, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Eight people serving life sentences were recommended for clemency Friday by Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons, which held sessions remotely via Zoom video conference (and in the face of repeated technological failures) for the first time in the board’s 148-year history due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Twenty-two men and women, including people in their 70s who have served more than 40 years in prison but are not eligible for parole, had asked the board to support their applications. A unanimous recommendation is necessary before Gov. Tom Wolf can commute their terms to lifetime parole. The tense four-day session brought raw, often tearful testimony from the family members of victims and supporters of those imprisoned for committing murders or participating in felonies that resulted in deaths. Groups as wide-ranging as Americans for Prosperity, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and a coalition of Jewish faith leaders had urged the board to show mercy.

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Among those who received the board’s support were Philadelphia brothers Reid and Wyatt Evans, who have served close to 40 years in prison for their roles in the 1980 gunpoint carjacking of 68-year-old Leonard Leichter outside a City Line Avenue supermarket. The brothers and friend, Marc Blackwell, dropped Leichter off at a payphone, but he died of a heart attack and the robbery became a murder.

Nancy Leichter, the victim’s daughter, told the board that since Blackwell, the ringleader in the crime, was paroled in 2018, it was a matter of equity to grant the Evans brothers’ application.

“My mother, who died about 18 years ago, ... she would always say to me: You have to forgive. You have to forgive. You have to forgive. I believe she would have forgiven them. I believe that the way to honor both my mother and my father is to forgive them. Only then will we be able to come full circle.”

Two sets of brothers spent decades in prison. This may be their last chance to get out.Their father, W.K. Evans Jr., 86 watched the livestream from his home in Philadelphia.

“I just got finished crying,” he said. “I can’t hardly contain myself. It means everything to me right now. My sons been in there since they was boys. We made so many trips up there that was our second home.”

Other applications were denied or held under advisement, as board members clashed repeatedly during public hearings as they wrestled with hazy details of decades-old criminal behavior and murky records produced by the Department of Corrections.

“This isn’t about voting yes or no on a commutation. It’s about being able to vote at all on it,” said Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who was often seen in opposition to Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the board’s chairman and a vocal advocate for broader use of clemency. Shapiro said that “much more work needs to be done to fix this process.”

For instance, he expressed frustration over missing court transcripts for Dennis and Lee Horton, brothers from Philadelphia who have maintained their innocence while serving 27 years for robbery and a fatal shooting at a Hunting Park bar. The Board agreed to hold the brothers’ cases under advisement, which means it will render its decision at a later date.

An accomplice will die in prison while the killer goes free: The strange justice of Pennsylvania’s felony-murder lawFetterman said their record should stand on its own: No prison misconducts. “Unheard of” zero risk-assessment score. And glowing reviews from prison officials.

“These two gentlemen stand out. They just don’t belong in prison,” Deputy Superintendent Mark Wahl told the board, describing their work within the prison as leaders for rehabilitation. “I am excited for them to get out here in their community and use the same skills.”

“There are things that are unknowable quite frankly after 30 or 40 years or more have passed. The Horton brothers were described by the Department of Corrections as the best inmates we have out of thousands of inmates. You seem preoccupied with drilling down on a transcript,” Fetterman told Shapiro. “You encouraged them to acknowledge their guilt multiple occasions during questioning, and they maintained their innocence, as they have for 27 years.”

Still, the board moved ahead to recommend clemency for Avis Lee, Henrietta Harris and Mildred Strickland — a 75-year-old great-grandmother who in 1985 reportedly fended off an assault by an abusive boyfriend and ended up stabbing him to death.

They also supported the applications of Daniel Cummings, 75. And they gave approval to Gregory Stover, 52, who was convicted of serving as an accomplice to the murder of Darris Joyner — despite the anguished objections of Joyner’s sister, Dawn Moton, who told the board, “He completely destroyed a family.”

One of those recommended was Francisco Mojica, 58, who has been incarcerated 29 years on a second-degree murder conviction, in which the shooter, Mojica’s older brother, served just 12 years.

Lydia Mojica, his wife of more than 40 years and a Spanish speaker, expressed gratitude and disbelief when she heard the news.

“I guess she’s speechless,” said Luis Torres, who was translating for her.

Torres was incarcerated 29 years with Mojica, a prison hospice worker known for his gentle dedication.

“I was in a really bad accident and I had both of my hips replaced. And he was the person that fed me, that bathed me, that gave me therapy,” he said. “A lot of people at the prison didn’t want anyone else [but Mojica] taking care of them. He was really patient. He has a gift.”

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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