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The divide on commuting life sentences

HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons could deliver multiple recommendations to Governor Tom Wolf’s office next week, saying some inma...

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons could deliver multiple recommendations to Governor Tom Wolf's office next week, saying some inmates who are serving life in prison should have their sentences commuted.

The board finished day two of a three-day hearing session, this evening. It reviewed 131 cases of prisoners convicted of certain crimes, since yesterday. Fifteen people serving life sentences will ask the board to grant them clemency, tomorrow. It will make them the second-largest group of lifers requesting release from prison in the last 25 years.

One of those people, Robert Altland, is serving a life's sentence for killing John Zink in 1979. Zink's sister, Angie Baker, was two years old when her brother was killed. She tells Fox43 Altland shouldn't be allowed to have a second chance at freedom, "I don't get how you can take somebody's life, you're found guilty, life without parole, where does it say you get a chance to live? To want to see the outside world, to breathe air? It's not fair."

Court documents show Altland and Bruce Silar robbed Zink. Altland shot him, before both men put a heavy chain around his body and left it in Codorus Creek in York County. Altland is serving the life sentence at State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Collegeville.

When Altland's case is reviewed during tomorrow's hearing, Baker and two of her siblings will be there to testify, something the Board of Pardons strongly encourages victims to do.

In order for a convict to have their sentence commuted, the Board of Pardons has to send a formal recommendation to the governor. The board is made up of five people, including Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, who is its chairman. All five board members must give unanimous approval upon reviewing each case. They look at the inmates' prison record, and they must show "exemplary behavior" during their time, as well as show substantial remorse for the crime they've committed.

While Fetterman hasn't said anything about Altland's case, he has been more skeptical about the justification behind life sentences for other convicts doing the same time.

During an interview with Fox43, yesterday, Fetterman pointed to Charles Haas' case as an example. Haas, who has been in prison for 40 years for his role in a deadly robbery in 1978, wasn't the one who killed the victim. That was his brother's doing, who stabbed him, while a female accomplice shot the victim.

"You would be surprised how many times there's this gross mismatch," Fetterman said. "Is justice, 'well, you were sitting in the getaway car... you had no idea what's happening.. you should die in prison along with the person who pulled the trigger?' I don't believe we should."

Haas has spent more time in prison than his brother and his accomplice. For each year older inmates spend in prison, Fetterman says the state has to spend at least $70,000 to keep them there.

Not all law enforcement officials are comfortable with some lifers getting a second chance, either. Dauphin County District Attorney Fran Chardo told Fox43 those convicts should face the consequences, saying it's otherwise another struggle for the victims who have to testify. "Promises were made. It's not really right that it's being changed retroactively," Chardo Said. "There is an aspect of certainty, when you've got a victim involved, when they expect that there's going to be a sentence."

He also pointed to the risk those prisoners could commit more crimes if they're let out of prison. In 1994, Former Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey, Sr. pardoned Reginald McFadden. The convicted murderer then went on a killing spree.

Casey's Lieutenant Governor, Mark Singel, recommended McFadden for clemency. Singel was running for governor when the killing spree took place. He lost the election to former Governor Tom Ridge, as a result. After that, there wouldn't be nearly as many sentence commutations in Pennsylvania for 25 years, and more than 5,000 people would serve life without parole in the state as a result.

Governor Tom Wolf became the first state Governor to commute more life sentences than any other governor since Governor Casey, back in May. At the time, he pardoned three lifers, including George Trudel, Jr., 52. He was convicted for a role in a killing he did not personally commit. Since then, he has pardoned even more.

If Fetterman recommends more pardons, Governor Wolf will be even farther ahead of the curve.

Since he started serving his life prison, Altland has applied for a commutation hearing twice. His applications were denied both times. Baker says she hopes the board considers how it would feel if they were in her family's shoes.