In August 1996, 13-year-old Richezza Williams was found dead in a Pennsylvania cemetery, her burned and beaten body dumped in a cardboard box after she was tortured with household items, including a heated clothes hanger, cleaning chemicals, and a turkey baster.
Corey Maeweather admitted to authorities that he participated in the brutal crime, appearing "void of emotion" in a video as he described the victim's screams and cries for help. Maeweather said he was not directly involved in the young girl's death, instead confessing to retrieving the torture devices for two co-conspirators. He pleaded guilty to criminal homicide and kidnapping and was sentenced to life without parole.
More than two decades later, top Democrats are seeking to ease the process for criminals like Maeweather to walk free. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has called to end life sentences for anyone who did not directly take another's life, which could commute the sentences of more than 1,500 inmates convicted of serious crimes, according to records obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
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"If you didn't take a life, the state shouldn't take your life through unending incarceration," Fetterman said in November. The lieutenant governor's office has encouraged criminals sentenced to life in prison to apply for commutation. He is "particularly interested" in "cases in which a person participated in a crime resulting in a homicide but didn't ‘pull the trigger,'" according to a December press release. Fetterman also supports reforming the state's Board of Pardons, which he chairs, to reduce the unanimous vote required to recommend sentence commutations to a 4-1 vote.
Fetterman reiterated his stance that criminals who did not take a life should not serve life in prison in an email to the Free Beacon. He also argued that Pennsylvania's sentencing practices can be too lenient on those who do kill, pointing to the case of Keith Lambing. In December, the Butler County man pleaded guilty to third-degree murder after sodomizing a four-year-old boy, causing internal injuries that killed the child. He was sentenced to 30 to 60 years behind bars.
"Pennsylvania's criminal justice system is rife with uneven sentencing. It's about justice and being smart on crime," Fetterman said in an email. "For example, this monster was allowed to plead to 3rd Degree Murder (and therefore eligible for parole) when he should absolutely die in prison (or worse) for his heinous actions."
The Free Beacon obtained a list of the more than 1,500 criminals serving a sentence of life without parole for second-degree murder, third-degree murder, other homicide charges, and non-homicide charges. In addition to Maeweather, other criminals who meet Fetterman's standard for commutation include Don Hogue, a repeat offender who stabbed a man in the neck with a kitchen knife in a dispute over a cigarette lighter, and Orin Turner, another repeat offender found not guilty of attempted murder in the first degree but guilty of nine other violent felonies, including assault in the first degree and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.
Fetterman's Board of Pardons sent Democratic governor Tom Wolf nine recommendations for life-sentence commutations in September, the most in nearly two decades. Wolf went on to approve eight of the commutations.
Commutations were approved more regularly in Pennsylvania in the 1970s and 1980s before Reginald McFadden, a serial killer sentenced to life for a robbery-related homicide, was released from prison in 1992 following a Board of Pardons vote. McFadden went on to murder two people and kidnap and rape a third within 90 days of his release.
Before McFadden's post-release killing spree, the Board of Pardons required a 3-2 vote to encourage commutations. In 1997, Pennsylvania voters approved an amendment changing the board's standard of approval from a majority vote to a unanimous vote. A Fetterman-backed amendment to reduce the standard would also have to be approved by voters.
"What McFadden did was an unthinkable tragedy for the victims and the victims’ families," Fetterman said in December. "It was also an injustice to people who do deserve a second chance. We can’t stop believing in second chances for everyone."
In defense of his commutation stance, Fetterman shared a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial advocating for the release of state prisoners serving life without parole. Though the editorial cites federal data suggesting older criminals are less likely to reoffend, it does not account for the differences between federal and state inmates, according to Manhattan Institute legal policy expert Rafael Mangual.
"It is not clear [in the editorial] that there are some pretty important differences between federal inmates and inmates who are in state prison," said Mangual. "As we know, the federal government's jurisdiction is fairly limited, so the types of offenses that you can be incarcerated for at the federal level are very different."
Mangual cited a U.S. Department of Justice study tracking prisoner recidivism among more than 67,000 state prisoners released across 30 states in 2005. In the nine years following their release, more than 75 percent of inmates age 40 or older, the oldest age group tracked in the study, were rearrested at least once.
"When you look at their age, the numbers are actually pretty startling," Mangual said. "I think the editorial does a bit of an apples to oranges comparison to make its point."
The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA) pushed back against Fetterman's assertion that anyone who "didn't take a life" shouldn't serve life in prison. PDAA executive director Lindsay Vaughan said the blanket approach undermines the voices of victims and their families.
"Blanket commutation for any category of crime or crimes would unavoidably circumnavigate current law," Vaughan said. "PDAA supports critical, individual review of each petition that is filed for someone convicted of murder. Depending upon the specific circumstance of each case, there may be individuals appropriate for commutation consideration.
"However the process plays out, the surviving victims of these murders must be given the opportunity to be heard at the hearing and their opinions must be given significant weight.… Regardless of their opinions, the process of showing them the respect they deserve is paramount."