Sen. Daylin Leach Challenges Felony Murder Rule

Pa. has 2nd-most inmates serving life without parole

BY MENSAH M. DEAN, Daily News Staff Writer, 215-568-8278
Posted: July 22, 2014  Published on

TYRONE WERTS waited in the car while his four buddies walked two blocks to a North Philadelphia speakeasy to commit a robbery on the night of May 6, 1975.

Werts, 23, didn’t know that the robbery victim had been fatally shot until his accomplices jumped back inside the car.

The District Attorney’s Office offered Werts a plea bargain of eight to 20 years in prison, but he opted for a jury trial and wound up getting convicted of second-degree murder.

That resulted in a mandatory life sentence without parole – the punishment in Pennsylvania state court for first- or second-degree murder. (Some first-degree-murder convictions also can draw death sentences.)

“I was young, ignorant of the law at that time, and I just could not reconcile in my mind how I could be guilty of murder, because I didn’t kill anybody – right?” said Werts, now 62.

“So I turned that deal down because I was under the illusion that if I went to trial, I would tell the facts of the case and I would be found guilty of less or I would be found innocent. But I was wrong.”

Werts would spend 36 years in maximum-security prison before the state Pardons Board heard his appeal and recommended that his sentence be commuted.

Then-Gov. Ed Rendell signed the order to free him and two other murder convicts on Dec. 30, 2010. Rendell cited the “ancillary roles” the men had played and the fact that some accomplices had more-significant roles but got lighter sentences.

The other two men also spent more than 35 years doing life without parole:

* William Fultz, at age 22, knowingly disposed of the murder weapon used by two of his friends to kill a man in 1974.

* Keith O. Smith, at age 19, was the lookout man during a 1974 robbery that resulted in the murder of a flower-shop owner.

The cases of Werts, Fultz and Smith give insight into why Pennsylvania has the nation’s second-largest population of inmates serving life without parole, when crime statistics show that its murder rate is lower than those in 15 other states.

A controversial issue

Given the hefty annual cost of housing inmates – about $32,000 per person – some experts believe that the state should revisit sentencing guidelines to give judges discretion when meting out punishment to those convicted of taking part in murders.

Others say that the concerns of victims’ families should take precedence over those of people who have been convicted and sentenced to die behind bars.

“I know that for my families it gives them a little bit more sense of closure when a defendant gets a life sentence and they know that’s it,” said Tracy Simmons, program director for Families of Murder Victims, a nonprofit organization that works in city courts. “They know they’re not going to get a call that they’re up for parole.”

But state Sen. Daylin Leach, minority chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he is drafting a bill that would make parole possible for some murderers.

The bill, he said, would get rid of the felony-murder rule, which holds that if a murder is committed during the commission or attempted commission of a felony, everyone involved can be convicted of murder.

“I think it is morally problematic to punish people for things that they neither intended to do and did not do,” said Leach, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Montgomery and Delaware counties.

“I’m a big fan of courts having discretion, and I am opposed to most mandatory-minimum sentences,” Leach added.

The Pennsylvania Prison Society, a nonprofit prisoner-advocacy organization, has long called for changing the law to give some long-serving lifers a second chance at freedom, said executive director Ann Schwartzman.

“You’re always going to have some that do need to remain behind bars,” she said. “But most people do deserve a second chance, and we at least want to see a process open where people can apply for a commutation or apply for parole and have that opportunity.

“Even in California, Sirhan Sirhan [Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin] and Charlie Manson come up every year for parole.”

Second only to Florida

At the end of 2012, Pennsylvania was home to 5,121 inmates serving life without parole. They represented about 10 percent of the state’s prison population of about 51,100, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Florida has 7,992 inmates serving life without parole, the most of any state. Louisiana, with 4,637 inmates, is in third place, according to the Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit organization engaged in research and advocacy on criminal-justice issues.

National data indicate that there is no correlation between Pennsylvania’s high population of inmates serving life without parole and the number of murders committed in the state.

In fact, 15 states have murder rates higher than Pennsylvania’s, and all have fewer inmates serving life without parole, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based national nonprofit research group.

In 2012, Pennsylvania had the 16th-highest murder rate – 5.4 murders per 100,000 people. By comparison, Michigan had the fourth-highest – seven per 100,000 – but had only 3,635 inmates serving life without parole.

But changing Pennsylvania law to give lifers a chance at parole is not on the agenda of state Rep. Ron Marsico, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

“These prisons are there for those who commit the most heinous crimes, and releasing them without supervision or parole would be an enormous problem,” said Marsico, a Dauphin County Republican. “I’m almost certain the Legislature would not approve that.”

He said he would not mind having a study done on the issue with input from sources including Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel and members of the Board of Probation and Parole.

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said life-without-parole terms “would be appropriate for certain cases that are so egregious.”

In other cases depending on the facts, he said, judges should have sentencing options.

“The more tools we give the judges, the better chance justice will be done,” said the Republican, whose district includes parts of Montgomery and Bucks counties.

Most inmates serving life without parole in Pennsylvania are not as fortunate as Werts, Fultz and Smith, who will be on parole for the rest of their lives.

Gov. Corbett has not commuted any life sentences so far. Rendell commuted five, Mark Schweiker commuted one and Tom Ridge commuted none, according to the state Department of Corrections.

“I tell people all the time I’m a walking miracle,” said Werts, who stays busy working for the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program at Temple University and for the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

In May 2013, he won an 18-month fellowship from billionaire philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Foundations to conduct outreach programs aimed at steering ex-offenders away from returning to crime.

“Sometimes I still wake up in the morning and think, ‘I cannot believe I’m out here.’ ”

The North Philly native speaks to organizations throughout the city about prison-reform issues. His work also has taken him to New York; Towson, Md., and Allentown. It’s a far cry from his life before he went to prison.

Turned off to school after an elementary-school teacher told him he was too dumb to be an astronomer, Werts dropped out of Simon Gratz High School in the 10th grade.

He amassed an arrest record for street crimes including car theft and drug dealing.

After being convicted of murder and being sent to Graterford, he started to turn things around.

He earned a GED in 1977 and a bachelor’s degree in general studies in 1992, and spent 20 years as president of a lifers group whose mission was to change the law so that its members one day could be eligible for parole.

While he was in prison, Werts’ parents and three of his eight siblings died.

Some defendants, such as “recreational killers and child-killers,” should not get paroled, but others should get consideration, he said.

In his case, he noted, the accomplice who masterminded the 1975 robbery-turned-murder received 10 years’ probation for testifying against him and the others.

“That caused me to question: Was this about the prosecutor winning – or was it about justice?”

On Twitter: @MensahDean


Prison Justice Field Trip – August 28th

Join Let’s Get Free and Decarcerate PA in Harrisburg to:

restore logo copy
​Restore Meaningful Commutation for Lifers
Currently there are over 5,000 people in PA sentenced to Life Without Parole (LWOP)- aka The Other Death Penalty. Commutation is one way that lifers can prove they are worthy of a second chance in society.
We are hoping at least 20 people from Pittsburgh will attend!
Are you in?!
Thursday August 28th
Early in the morning til later in the evening
We will be carpooling from Pittsburgh.
There will be resources for gas and tolls!
Please fill out this online form or contact etta if you wish to go or support the rally.
We will meet with the Governor’s Office!
We will have a press conference at Noon!
We will lobby/educate the judiciary committee about the broken commutation process!
We will build relationships with each other and meet others seeking prison justice from other parts of the state!

What is commutation?
A commuted sentence is a legal sentence which has been adjusted by an official to make the sentence less severe. Classically, commuted sentences come in the form of reduced imprisonment, although commutation can also involve a reduction of fees and other penalties ordered by a judge.

What is Meaningful Commutation?
Meaningful Commutation means revitalizing this legal process of sentence reduction that already exists.  At one time, as many as 12 lifers a year had their sentence commuted. At one time, a life sentence meant 7 years.  It hasn’t always been like this. Excessive sentencing with no redemption in sight.

In order to have your life sentence commuted the applicant must be approved unanimously by the 5 member board of pardons and the governor.

Only 6 people have had their life sentences commuted in the last 15 years. Most recently, Tyrone Werts  of Philadelphia was commuted in June of 2011 after 36 years in prison.
Why August 28th?

Thursday August 28  is the Merit Review Hearing. This is one part of a 17 step process for people sentenced to LWOP to be commuted. Avis Lee’s name may or may not be called at this hearing. The hearing  will go through a list of names of people seeking commutation and the 5 members of the board of pardons will vote yes or no wether they think this person should have a public hearing. So it’s not a dialogue or discussion more like imageannouncing the ways the board voted. AND 4 of the Board are on speaker phone. Avis Lee applied for commutation 3 years ago and may be approved or denied the public hearing on this day. Avis Lee was the look out for a robbery that went terribly wrong in 1980. She was 18.  She has spent over 34 years in prison and we believe she deserves a second chance. Learn more about the case for Avis Lee Here.  This is her 5th attempt at commutation.

There are 192 women serving Life Without Parole in PA.

Since 1990  –  50 women have applied for commutation.
Only 6 were granted a hearing.
Not one received commutation.


Free Her! Rally –Pittsburghers Report By Julia Johnson

Locked Up – Who, For What and Why? Three Questions We Fail to Ask
photo credit Julia Johnson
Jul 22, 2014

Locked Up – Who, For What and Why? Three Questions We Fail to Ask

On June 21st, I stood below the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. alongside hundreds of participants in the first annual Free Her Rally. Many of us had shared experiences of wrongdoing at the hands of the criminal justice system and it was no coincidence that many of us were black women. The reason for the event can be summed up in one chilling statistic; in the past 30 years, the incarceration rate of women has increased by 800% with women of color being disproportionately represented. This is a prime example of what is wrong with our criminal justice system and it is why we stood together and rallied. We not only wanted to share our stories of how this unthinkable statistic has affected us – we were there to take action.

photo by Amanda Johnson

A large part of why I was there that day stemmed directly from a major event in my childhood. Child Protective Services took my four siblings and I from our Mother when I was five years old. I loved my mother dearly, and like most children at that age, I was attached to her at the hip. To put it lightly, being taken from her devastated me. It was explained to me that she was labeled a drug addict and deemed unfit to take care of us.I could not reconcile that statement with what I had experienced; she was a loving, single mother who did an excellent job of providing for us. She was heavily involved in our school life, was always the first to volunteer for the PTA and even stepped in as lunch lady at times. This abrupt removal from my home left me asking questions and seeking answers. I was rightfully angry from my experience with CPS, but more importantly, I now spend my days advocating for policies that do not unjustly inflict trauma and ruin the lives of others. I know there is another way to shape our criminal justice system. It can be principled, compassionate and backed by evidence of success.

My politics, and by extension my passions, are shaped by statistics and common sense. For example, nearly twenty-four million people in the United States abuse and are addicted to illegal narcotics. Medical professionals tell us they are suffering from a disease. How can we help the people struggling with this detrimental and debilitating illness? Unfortunately, many people (specifically law enforcement officials) will tell you they should be thrown in jail.

Handcuffs do not cure addictions, so why would you send someone to jail for having an illness? If our tax dollars were used to wean people off of drugs rather than the failed approach of throwing them in a cage, we can significantly reduce the supply and demand of drugs in our country. This has been the successful policy of Portugal where all drugs have been decriminalized since 2001. As a result, “the proportion of drug offenders in the Portuguese prison system fell from 44 percent in 1999 to 21 percent in 2008” and the country has drastically decreased its rates of addiction and disease transmission. There are many success stories from around the globe of alternative policies that have proven to reduce the use of narcotics. We can do the same for our country.

mothers in charge
photo of Mothers in Charge by Amanda Johnson

Another defect of our broken criminal justice system: our prisons are filled with people of color. When you look at the incarceration rates for drug possession, blacks make up “12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.

Why are blacks disproportionately represented in the rate of drug arrests? Simple: racial profiling. While the Jim Crow Era came to an end after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prejudice and racism in our society did not go away. Stereotypes of blacks as dangerous criminals and good for nothing have seeped into the mindsets of our law enforcement and judiciary officials. This has allowed for them to target people of color and give them harsher punishments. Blacks are not only arrested at higher rates, they are locked up for longer periods of time.

Understanding what racial profiling is and how prevalent it has become is key to changing our failing criminal justice system. By criminalizing drugs and targeting people of color as suspect, there are more black people in chains today than at any point of the African Slave Trade. Our country must come to terms with how racism is destroying entire communities and gutting our economic potential as we unwittingly continue the cycle of poverty.

While these two issues are harmful enough, their negative impact has been compounded and inflated by the Prison Industrial Complex and mass incarceration. The prison industry lobbies for harsher penalties for drug use and other non-violent crimes, resulting in strict mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking and possession. This is the leading cause of our prison population quadrupling since 1980. Currently, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world with 2.4 million of our citizens behind bars, the majority of which are for drug offenses, costing us between $21,000 – $33,000 per inmate. This is inhuman and simply put, not sustainable. We must implement smarter, alternative policies for the sake of our families and our communities.

pittsburgh delegation
part of the Pittsburgh Delegation

As I stood below the Washington Monument and listened to the passionate demand to end the drug war, racist policies and mass incarceration, I knew I was not alone in my anger and outrage. I made a promise to myself to convert my passion into action: to advocate for the Smarter Sentencing Act, Ban the Box initiatives, anti-racial profiling proposals, harm reduction policies, regulation of illicit drugs by health clinics and funding for rehabilitation centers. Will you do the same? As speaker Ronnel Guy, Executive Director of the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing said – “It’s movement building time!


A Living Chance : Storytelling to End Life Without Parole in California

A Living Chance is a multimedia storytelling project created in collaboration with people serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) in California’s women’s prisons. People serving LWOP describe themselves as the “lost population” of the prisoner rights movement. Their sentences are so severe, they seem impossible to reverse. The majority of people serving LWOP are survivors of childhood abuse and intimate partner violence. In most cases, evidence of their abuse was not presented at their trials. Through visual storytelling, A Living Chance will humanize the LWOP population and make visible the struggles and resiliency of these people who are, essentially, sentenced to die in prison.

Through audio recordings, interviews, letters, and photographs we will document and archive the stories of people sentenced to LWOP. These stories will be compiled into a website and publication to be used for public education, broader campaign work against LWOP, and to support individual cases. This project emerges from the current organizing inside prison—specifically the work of incarcerated members of California Coalition for Women Prisoners, a grassroots social justice organization with members inside and outside of prison.

By carrying the voices of this lost population beyond the prison walls, A Living Chance has the potential to affect cultural and legislative change, thus giving those sentenced to LWOP in California a living chance at freedom.

Go to the donation page here: A Living Chance donation page


Pittsburgh Rises Against Gender Based Violence on Valentine’s Day

The March on the way to the courthouse.

Over 300 people gathered on Friday February 14th, 2014, in Downtown Pittsburgh to participate in a global day of action to end gender based violence. The ANEW Rising Women’s Collective, New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice, One Billion Been Rising and Let’s Get Free came together to lead different parts of the day’s events.  Over 70 different groups endorsed the action including labor rights leaders, women shelters, arts organizations, sororities and legal justice & human rights groups.

The festivities kicked off in a march and vigil against domestic violence and in memory of Ka’Sandra Wade, a local activist and friend who was killed last year by her ex-boyfriend.  Her story stayed in the news because it exposed problems within police policies on responding to 911 calls for “unknown trouble.” Her family and advocates for women worked tirelessly to change those policies.  Members of the ANEW Rising Women’s Collective gathered at the portico of the city council building to hold the vigil.

Participants and family members of Ka’Sandra Wade marched to the hotel where 1 Billion BEEN Rising was gathering and staged a die in to represent the over 100 women that have died due to domestic violence in Pennsylvania this year.

The One Billion BEEN Rising program started around noon.  The youth really came out! There were so many enthusiastic young people.  It was amazing!

crowdThe creative messaging was an awesome presence! While it felt so different having the event inside at the hotel because Market Square was a dangerous sheet of ice, all the banners and signs really transformed the place.  In months leading to the event many volunteers worked at the Neighborhood Print Shop in Braddock to screen-print placards, patches and posters for the action. A local men’s group that organizes to unlearn and challenge sexism made some beautiful signs that were meant to be held by men. They said things like, “I love feelings. Violence against women is a mens’ issue. Gentle and proud. Men can change.” A series of posters were generated based on Andrea Smith’s platform –what should organizing around ending gender based violence look like?

More volunteers created vibrant colorful fabric banners, including slogans from movements past and present – from the civil rights movement, “We must be tender with each other so we can be dangerous together” and, “ The Revolution Starts at Home” which is also the title of a book about intimate partner violence in the activist community. “No one is disposable,” read another banner – referencing a recent video series by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project outlining strategies for every day prison abolition.

The rally kicked off with a drum call by Abafazi and a libation by La’Keisha Wolfe. During the libation, water is offered to the earth to honor the ancestors in the African tradition. In addition to speaking the names of our ancestors, there was space created to honor loved ones lost to domestic violence and those that survived.

Mythili Ramakrishna

Our first dancer was Dr.Mythili Ramakrishna who performed in India last year as part of the 1 Billion Rising there. The dance, Bharatanatyam is the strictly traditional and pure form of classical dance that has survived in the southern part of the Indian subcontinent in spite of centuries of social and political upheavals. This 2000 year-old art is still as fresh and fascinating as it must have been when it inspired the brilliant sculptors who have left records of Bharatanatyam in the magnificent temples of Tamil Nadu.The word Bharatanatyam is made up of three elements- ‘Bha’ or Bhaava (expressions), ‘Ra’ or Raaga (musical melody), and ‘Ta’ or Taala (rhythm).

On this day Dr.Mythili Ramakrishna performed the dance form within the realms of feminine power. The world mother, as the female divinity is known in India, represents the synthesis of the feminine energies of the universe, and illustrates how the female principle of God, Shakti, is inseparable from Shiva, the male principle of God. 
This piece symbolizes the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction, as well as the daily rhythm of birth and death. The dance is a pictorial allegory of the five principle manifestations of eternal energy — creation, destruction, preservation, salvation, and illusion, presented through fervor laden devotional poetry and rhythmic mnemonics, that create roiling waves of resounding beauty, energy, and a vision of a primordial energy of female power. The piece is called Shivoham and is composed by Adi Shankaracharya in the 8th century.

Bekezela Mguni

Ruth Martial, etta cetera, and Bekezela Mguni read aloud A letter to our sisters, ourselves, and the movement for radical social change and liberation. This letter was collectively written by One Billion BEEN Rising crew in response to important criticism  to Eve Ensler and the 1BR organization by many feminist leaders of color all over the world. The letter expresses solidarity with the women and communities that have been harmed by the racism within the One Billion Rising movement.  Ruth also spoke about how for the last 25 years,  February 14th has been a day of action for missing and murdered indigenous women in the United States and Canada for decades. The purpose of this day – Annual Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) is not only to honor and remember the women but to demand justice and an official inquiry.  These murders and missing persons cases are almost never even investigated.  Some blockades have just gone up in Mohawk territory to protest the lack of response just in the last few days. The article Ruth quoted was by Lauren Chief Elk of the Save Wiyabi Project and you can find it here.

Black Rapp Madusa

Black Rapp Madusa performed a powerful poem she wrote while she was incarcerated. She spoke of the many women she met while incarcerated in Texas who had been locked up for self defense.

La ‘Tasha Mayes

La’Tasha Mayes of New Voices Pittsburgh; Women of Color for Reproductive Justice spoke about the case of Marissa Alexander. La’Tasha got the whole crowd wishing Marissa a Happy Valentine’s Day.  In the beginning of March opposition to Marissa’s quest for justice escalated. The campaign website reads “Demonstrating a stunning abuse of power, Florida State Prosecutor, Angela Corey, announced that she aims to increase the prison sentence for Marissa Alexander from 20 to 60 years in the upcoming July 28th trial.  In 2012, Alexander – an African American mother of three in Jacksonville, Florida — was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 20 years for firing a warning shot upwards into a wall to defend her life from her abusive estranged husband.  She caused no injuries.  Alexander successfully appealed the unjust trial and was granted a new trial. In November 2013, after serving nearly three years in prison, she was released on bond to home detention until her new trial.”

“Yet as a consequence of winning the appeal to hopefully secure a more fair trial, Alexander now faces the alarming prospect that the original devastating sentence could be tripled in the new trial.  In the upcoming trial, Corey says she intends to seek three 20 year sentences for Alexander to be served consecutively rather than concurrently, tripling the mandatory minimum to 60 years.”

freemarissaband“Free Marissa Now member and victim’s advocate, Sumayya Fire, stated, “Remember that this entire case boils down to a woman defending her life from her husband who attacked her, strangled her, threatened to kill her, whose beatings have sent her to the hospital and likely caused her to have premature labor.  A husband who confirmed in a deposition that he beat her, that he was in a rage when he attacked her, and that he has beaten other women with whom he was involved.  Remember that when Marissa Alexander fired her warning shot to save her own life, she caused no injuries.  Now she’s facing the very real possibility of spending the rest of her life in prison for that act of self-defense.  That should send a chill down the back of every person in this country who believes that women who are attacked have the right to defend themselves.  Anyone who believes that domestic violence is unjust should be deeply shaken by Corey’s abusive prosecution of Marissa Alexander and should be advocating for Alexander’s freedom.”

Ruth, etta and Ngani calling our representatives about the nuisance ordinance while waiting for the DA’s office to come out!

Ngani Ndimbie spoke on behalf of the the ACLU. Several towns in PA have so-called “nuisance” ordinances which punish tenants who call the police with eviction even if they are calling to report a serious crime such as domestic violence. This is what happened to Lakisha Briggs, of Norristown, PA, who was threatened with eviction after she called the police for protection from an abusive ex-boyfriend. The ACLU of Pennsylvania is representing Lakisha Briggs and will fight the Norristown ordinance in court, but there is still more to be done. In response to the case, legislators drafted House Bill No. 1796. If passed, HB 1796 will prevent tenants and landlords from being penalized for requesting police assistance. The bill has already passed in the State House and has made its way to the State Senate. Contact your state Senator and urge him or her to support HB 1796.

Ginny Hildebrand from Stop Sexual Assault in the Military performed a chilling folk song that outlined four different scenarios highlighting forms of sexual violence with the chorus sounding – “if it could happen to you it could happen to me”.  Joseph Hall, our amazing sound technician, read the man prayer and it was echoed by people who identify as men.


Interplay Dance troupe

Additional expressive and motivating performances were presented by the Improve Dance Troupe – Interplay, The Raging Grannies, and the poet Joy Yejide KMT, who posed the question, “How can you be silent when your silence is violent?  Our silences are killing us.”

“30 years is too much time! Self Defense is not a crime! Free Charmaine Now!”

Members of Let’s Get Free – The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee took the stage wearing soft ball style Free Charmaine t-shirts. Charmaine’s mother, Donna Hill, and Attorney Bret Grote, spoke about the tragic details of this case.

Charmaine Pfender was 18 years old when she took a life in self-defense and 19 years old when she was sentenced to IMG_1207life-without-parole for protecting herself against rape. She has served 30 years in prison. When the man she was on a date with pulled a knife and attempted to rape her, Charmaine struggled back, reached for a gun and fired a warning shot. When she tried to flee her attacker, he chased after her with a knife in hand, so she shot and killed him. Charmaine should never have been convicted of murder. She fought for her life against a knife-wielding man who was attempting to rape her. This is self-defense, not a crime.  Donna asked everyone present to join her and Charmaine’s supporters in a march to the courthouse.

Devon, Bret and Donna on the way to the DA’s office

With the enthusiastic sounds of the Mayday Marching Band, all the beautiful banners and balloons, it really was a Valentine’s Day march – bursting with bright colors and messages of love.  Let’s Get Free, The Women in Prison Defense Committee along with Charmaine’s mother, Donna Hill, Attorney Bret Grote, and a delegation of approximately 20 community leaders and concerned citizens braved the metal detectors and delivered chocolates and a letter wrapped in red ribbon to Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala calling upon him to re-open Charmaine’s case and to drop the charges against her. Meanwhile, the band and merry activists held down the court yard that sits in the middle of the building. Echoes of their songs could be heard through the halls, and curious lawyers, court attendees, and city workers lined the windows looking down at the colorful demonstration that circled the fountain.

Holding it down in the courtyard.

The delegation was told that Zappala was not in his office and was asked to wait for a long time to deliver the letter, in spite of the face that the campaign made a point to inform his office that they would be delivering the letters a week prior to the action.  Finally, the spokesperson of the DA’s agreed to meet with Donna and Bret.  While they listened, the office seemed to pass the buck and responded dismissively – “Let me refer you to an office in the Northside.” “Don’t waste your money sending postcards for your cause.” “Our office doesn’t investigate prosecutorial misconduct.”  The delegation left the courthouse feeling undeterred and unsurprised by the response and walked into the loving arms of the 25 or so supporters who were STILL waiting and chanting in the court yard! Donna symbolically liberated a teddy bear from inside a balloon – “We WILL free my daughter.” We left the courtyard with the words of Assata Shakur on our lips, “It is our Duty to Fight for Our Freedom! It is our Duty to Win! We must love each other and support each other! We have nothing to lose but our chains!”


On February 19, 2014, Let’s Get Free received a letter from the District Attorney.IMG_1301

Zappala writes, “Ms. Pfender was convicted by a jury of several crimes including first degree murder in March of 1985. Although my jurisdiction in this case has long been relinquished, I have nonetheless assigned an assistant to review the transcripts of the testimony in the trial. That assistant has been directed to communicate with the attorney who has contacted the office on Ms. Pfender’s behalf.”  While he is distancing himself from any obligation to do more than a review of the transcript, his prompt response and promise of review demonstrates a positive first step in the newly launched campaign to Free Charmaine!

We won’t stop until the charges are dropped!IMG_1322



Press conference: Friday February 14th Office of District Attorney Stephen Zappala, Room 303 Courthouse

2:00pm 436 Grant Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15219photo 1

Contact: Bret Grote 412-654-9070


This Valentine’s Day, in conjunction with One Billion Been Rising Pittsburgh and as part of a larger event
focused on ending gender based violence, Let’s Get Free, The Women in Prison Defense Committee
along with Charmaine’s mother, Donna Hill, Attorney Bret Grote, and a delegation of approximately 25
community leaders and concerned citizens. The delegation including members of the American Friends
Service Committee, New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice, will be delivering
chocolates and a letter wrapped in red ribbon to Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala
calling upon him to re-open Charmaine’s case and to drop the charges against her.

Charmaine Pfender was 18 years old when she took a life in self-defense and 19 years old when she was sentenced to life-without-parole for protecting herself against rape. She has served 30 years in prison. When the man she was on a date with pulled a knife and attempted to rape her, Charmaine struggled back, reached for a gun and fired a warning shot. When she tried to flee her attacker, he chased after her with a knife in hand, so she shot and killed him. Charmaine should never have been convicted of murder. She fought for her life against a knife-wielding man who was attempting to rape her. This is self-defense, not a crime.

Charmaine Pfender is not a threat to society and would be a positive contribution to it if released. During her time at SCI Cambridge Springs, Charmaine has devoted herself to personal growth and service. She has received the highest prisoner rating available and has become a certified carpenter, completed courses in Violence Prevention, and gives back to the community by knitting 2-4 sweaters a month for children in need through the Lion’s Club. She maintains close and loving relationships with her family. In short, she is a normal, compassionate person who is doing her best to live a meaningful life despite the constraints that society has placed upon her. Just imagine who she could be if she were allowed to be free!

While the delegation delivers the letter, a dance party for incarcerated women with a marching band will take place simultaneously in the Courthouse Courtyard. Several hundred participants are expected.



Let’s Get Free – The Women In Prison Defense Committee
Website –
Email –
Twitter – @vivamarilynbuck



Mothers of Bedford Screening This Wednesday

LOGO_MothersOfBedford Wednesday Februray 12th at the Friends Meeting House,  4836 Ellsworth Ave, Oakland

7pm – Free Event

email to rsvp for childcare – writealetta(at)

Women are the fastest growing U.S. prison population today. Eighty percent are mothers of school-age children. Jenifer McShane’s absorbing documentary gives human dimensions to these rarely reported statistics, taking us inside Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison north of New York City.


MOTHERS OF BEDFORD follows five women of diverse backgrounds and incarcerated for different reasons in dual struggles to be engaged in their children’s lives and become their better selves. It shows how long-term sentences affect mother-child relationships and how Bedford’s innovative Children’s Center helps women maintain and improve bonds with children and adult relatives awaiting their return.

Filmmaker, Jenifer McShane, spent five years interviewing and visiting these women inside prison and the families awaiting their return. MOTHERS OF BEDFORD premiered at HOT DOCS 2011 and has screened at Lincoln Center and many other festivals andindependent theaters in the US.

Five Women, Five Stories: The people we follow in MOTHERS OF BEDFORD were sent to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility – all for different reasons. They have one thing in common: they are all mothers.

Melissa arrived at Bedford Hills pregnant. In her own words she “had lost everything but her own life” before landing in prison. We first meet Melissa and her daughter, Emma, in the cell they share when Emma is eight months old and revisit them until both are released from Bedford Hills when Emma is sixteen months old.

Tanika and son

Tanika When Tanika was arrested one of her sons was in first grade and the other in preschool. The boys are being raised by Tanika’s parents in a rough section of Schenectady. They are desperate to keep the boys out of trouble in a neighborhood that just keeps getting worse. Tanika Dickson is the only woman featured in MOTHERS OF BEDFORD who remains incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. She is currently preparing her application for parole.

Jacob and Mona

Mona High on angel dust at the time, Mona has no memory of riding as a passenger in a car involved in a hit and run. She awoke shackled to a hospital bed implicated in a crime she couldn’t recall. Nineteen at the time, she refused a plea deal because she felt five years seemed “like a lifetime away” from her two small children. She went to trial and was given a sentence of twenty to life. Mona was released in 2011, twenty-four years after being arrested. She attends many of the MOTHERS OF BEDFORD screenings to participate in the Q&A sessions with director, Jenifer McShane.

Rosa An employed mother of two when she was arrested, Rosa works in the baby nursery inside Bedford. She has a close relationship with her two sons, Jacob and Joey. Joey is entering adolescence and Rosa is learning to adapt to her son’s growing awareness of why she is in prison and the fact that he “must move on with his life”.

Rosa and son

Anneathia’s story has a generational component. We explore Anneathia’s relationship with her own mother Luecrezy, a recovering addict, as well as her ties to her own two daughters. During the film Anneathia and her mother mend broken trust and team up to get Anneathia’s two girls back in Luecrezy’s, care.


Support by Donating

Every dollar counts and generous donations from supporters will help us pay for stamps, envelopes, printing costs and transportation for visiting the prisons. Please let us know about your outreach efforts. If you have questions, please contact us at: btn_donate_LG
support by donating


Street Teams at Unblurred

The Women in Prison Defense Committee had their first street team outreach at Unblurred First Fridays Art Crawl on Penn Ave in Garfield. The team talked with people about the campaign to free Avis Lee from prison and asked people to sign postcards to support her commutation. The postcards are addressed and mailed to the board of pardons, asking for a public hearing. We are trying to send 1,000 pieces of mail to the Board of Pardons by the end of September. If you would like to donate postcard stamps or join a street team at an upcoming event please contact us at

photo2   photo1


Justice for Etana and Mecca Shakur

Black Riders Liberation Party Members Arrested by Inglewood Police Department


On Tuesday April 30th 2013, Black Riders Liberation Party members Mecca and Etana Shakur were harassed, assaulted and arrested by the Inglewood Police Department while selling newspapers and politicking with the people on Century and Crenshaw in Inglewood, California.

This attack comes in the aftermath of the party being honored by the Black Panther Party Alumni Association with the “Continuing the Struggle” Award. This award was presented at a fundraising event for Elder Freeman’s trip to Cuba to fight cancer.

The BRLP, being one of the first groups to seriously push a hard line in Oakland and Los Angeles for support of Elder Freeman, was in attendance to assist with security and personal escort for Kathleen Cleaver. Kathleen Cleaver presented this award to General T.A.C.O. and the BRLP for 17 plus years of revolutionary service to the community.

The recognition and support from this award some might say is long overdue. The torch has been passed and the generational gap between the elders and the youth is beginning to be filled with mutual respect and cooperation.

Comrades Mecca and Etana Shakur are high ranking central committee members, mothers and servants of the people who have been actively organizing many revolutionary programs throughout the Los Angeles area. Comrade Mecca Shakur is the BRLP’s Minister of Information and Comrade Etana Shakur is the Minister of Community Programs.

1000006_10151807649484808_1631420546_nPeople packed the Inglewood Courthouse on Wednesday, July 31 2013 to demand Justice for Etana and Mecca Shakur, who are both warriors who have put their lives on the line countless times for the people, and are in need of support. Mecca and Etana are charged with alleged assault and battery on a police officer after they were approached by police while educating people in their community and selling the African Inter-Communal News Service papers.

The Hands Off Africa Movement, initiated by the BRLP, is demanding Hands Off Etana and Mecca Shakur, drop all charges! The campaign, which is on-going, is organizing for Justice for Trayvon; support for the prison hunger strikers; to free all political prisoners; and to withdraw all racist US/NATO forces from Africa. They also demand Hands Off Assata Shakur and Cuba.

The BRLP is raising legal funds and awareness, and are gathering witnesses and legal support and will keep everyone updated as to ways to support our comrades.


For more information, contact the BRLP at 323-289-4457, or