Term for the Werts

Despite overwhelming support, a model prisoner misses yet another chance at freedom.

By Frank Rubino

Life stinks: Some have speculated the city would be safer if Werts were released.

If Tyrone Werts ever leaves the state prison at Graterford and rejoins society, he probably won’t be the sort of guy who gets impatient in checkout lines.

Biding time should come naturally to him by now.

After all, the North Philly native has walked off more than 30 years of a life sentence he got in 1975 for driving the getaway car used in an Arizona Street speakeasy holdup during which one of his accomplices shot a man to death.

Moreover, he’s been waiting since Groundhog Day for the state pardons board to decide how to treat his application for commutation–a rare sentence reduction that would make the 55-year-old Werts eligible for parole in a state where lifers otherwise aren’t.

Waiting patiently. Gracefully even, says his younger brother.

“He’s not frustrated,” says Rev. Paul Werts, a West Philly minister and one of Tyrone’s biggest backers. “He’s optimistic. He’s in great spirits.”

The same can’t be said for everyone in Werts’ camp.

William DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, is irked that six months after approximately 100 Philadelphians packed a courtroom in Harrisburg’s capital rotunda to support Werts’ bid before the board, the case remains “under advisement.”

Translation: The five-member board isn’t moving on the matter. And no one’s forcing its hand.

The latter is particularly disturbing to DiMascio in light of a March ruling by U.S. District Court Judge A. Richard Caputo, who upheld the Prison Society’s quest to overturn a 1997 state constitution change requiring the pardons board to unanimously endorse lifers’ commutation requests before passing them on to the governor for the final verdict. Before 1997 only three board members needed to recommend commutation for a lifer’s application to reach the governor.

Specifically, Caputo ruled that lifers such as Werts–who was convicted before the constitutional change–require only three votes. And although the state attorney general’s office appealed (as did the Prison Society, since Caputo ruled against them on numerous other commutations-related challenges), DiMascio thinks the ruling should be applied now and modified later should any of the appeals be upheld.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with this judge,” DiMascio says. “He should order the board to vote on Tyrone’s application right away.”

DiMascio and Paul Werts are confident that Tyrone Werts, who’s been praised by Department of Corrections officials for his effectiveness in motivating other prisoners to improve their outlooks and lives, would receive the three votes he needs for his application to reach Gov. Ed Rendell’s desk were Caputo to make the board vote now.

On the other hand, DiMascio in particular questions whether Tyrone Werts or any lifer could snare five votes were the unanimity protocol reinstalled. Especially with attorney general Tom Corbett sitting on the board.

Corbett, who took office in January 2005, is widely perceived as opposing commutation for any convicted murderer regardless of the circumstances, although officials from his office dispute that characterization.

“It’s an inaccurate assessment,” says Nils Frederiksen, a Corbett spokesperson. “He looks at each case on its individual merits. He’s fair.”

DiMascio isn’t so sure. Recalling a conversation he had with Corbett last winter, he says the attorney general remarked that he doesn’t categorically oppose commutation for lifers.

“But I think he’d be in an awkward position to say he’d never vote for anybody,” DiMascio says. “That’d almost be grounds for some sort of legal action. The bottom line is that he’s always been the stumbling block. He did comment that he wouldn’t rule out voting yes. But he also added that he’d be a very difficult vote to get.”

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