Hypocrisy on Display at May Board of Pardons hearings

Courtroom with a stained glass ceiling

Across much of the twentieth century, the Board of Pardons was a place where countless people serving life without parole sentences who had turned around their lives were able to find their way home from prison. While the Board was completely shut down amidst the rise of mass incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s, it began to slightly crack back open in 2019 due to the work of reformers and sympathetic elected officials. It remained arbitrary and a lottery in many ways, but it became a lottery that you just might have the chance to win. Many people applied to have their sentences commuted with the hope that they might be reunited with their families, and some were successful in winning their freedom. 


From the beginning of this process, the reopening of the Board of Pardons was contested with forces both for and against second chances clashing and pulling to either open the door at the Board further or to shut it firmly. Still, in the period between 2019 and 2022, we saw between 8 and 19 people granted commutation every year with over 50 people having their sentences commuted during the Wolf administration, including 12 of our clients. 


Now we are witnessing a troubling regression at the Board of Pardons under Governor Josh Shapiro. In 2023, the Board only recommended commutation in three cases and the Governor only signed off on the release of two of those people. Also, in 2023 Governor Josh Shapiro reappointed conservative corrections expert Harris Gubernick, even though several well-qualified candidates were vying for the position. Harris Gubernick is known to routinely vote against the recommendations of State Correctional Institutions and also the Department of Corrections when they recommend release.  Last but not least: Governor Shapiro appointed a conservative Department of Corrections Secretary and anecdotally we have heard that fewer individuals are receiving the Department of Corrections recommendation, which is a key ingredient to succeed in having your sentence commuted at the Board. We have no way of independently verifying this trend because we, along with others such as Drexel University Andy and Gwen Stern Community Lawyering Clinic, have been rebuffed when we’ve asked for data tracking DOC recommendations of commutation applicants. All in all, we are seeing real setbacks at the Board of Pardons and in the rest of the apparatus of state government that is related to the commutation process.


This, as well as the utter hypocrisy of the Board of Pardons itself, was all on display at the public hearings held on May 17th, 2024. The Board heard 10 cases on this day and voted down all but one. While we celebrate the commutation recommendation of Wayne Battle, it is hard not to see this hearing as the typification of a disturbing trend at the Board. 


Some of the norms established at the Board of Pardons were upended at this session. Gail Stallworth, a client of Amistad Law Project, who had received the unanimous recommendation of the Board of Pardons in 2023 had her case remanded to the Board. This is the first time we have ever heard of a case being remanded to the Board after gaining its recommendation. The case was ostensibly remanded due to new victim input that emerged after the Board’s recommendation. While we think it’s important that victims’ family members have a space to register their voices, we do not think that it is ok for that victim input to upend the entire process. Imagine receiving the recommendation and the promise of freedom that it brings––itself a rarity akin to winning the lottery––only to have it snatched away from you. This was a particularly cruel and cynical move. Our analysis is that Governor Shapiro did not want to deny this application himself so it was sent back to the Board where Harris Gubernick and John Williams could do the dirty work of voting it down, denying it for him. 


Alongside this cruelty is the case of Shelby Zablotny, a client of Amistad Law Project’s who has been incarcerated for over 25 years. Similar to Gail Stallworth, there were victims who wanted to provide input in Shelby’s case. Two of the victim's brothers testified in favor of Shelby’s release from prison, and they said on the record they carried the support of others in the family as well. They were completely ignored. We routinely see the Board publicly defer to the victim's family members when they are opposing release, but now we see how easy it is to ignore them when they speak in favor of redemption and freedom. Or perhaps the victims were ignored because they were working class Black people with some of them formerly incarcerated themselves. Whatever the case, it is clear that some victims' voices matter more than others, and the hypocrisy of the Board of Pardons was clearly on display. 


We hold all the people voted down––including Shelby, Gail, our client Larry Stephenson, and many more––close to our hearts, and we recommit to fight for them. 


While we are glad Wayne Battle received a commutation recommendation, and our critically ill client Ezra Bozeman was approved for a public hearing, there is little to celebrate about the Board of Pardons. Under Governor Shaprio and Lt. Governor Austin Davis, the Board of Pardons has only backtracked. The failure of the Board of Pardons to maintain its progress demands accountability. It will be up to justice-minded people to set the conditions that get the Board of Pardons back on track and to hold those responsible to a higher standard. Accountability starts today.