Cousins Sean Michael Kratz and Cosmo DiNardo are serving life sentences for their involvement in the brutal murders of four young men in bucolic Bucks County in 2017. Who exactly pulled the trigger in the deaths of Dean Finocchiaro, Thomas Meo, Mark Sturgis and Jimi T. Patrick will never be known with certainty — Kratz and DiNardo told conflicting stories. Nevertheless, loved ones of the victims should reasonably expect that life in prison means the two killers will die behind bars.
But this is Pennsylvania, home of criminal justice reform – a movement that tilts in favor of criminals rather than victims. If Kratz or DiNardo someday claim they should be released because the other was the actual murderer who held the gun, will they have a chance at freedom? Based on current state policies, the answer, sadly, is yes.
In August, the Wolf administration kicked off the Roadmap to Redemption prison tour, a pet project of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who is chairman of the state Board of Pardons. The plan is to have a member of the administration visit each state correctional institution by January 2023. The goal? To educate the Keystone State’s approximately 5,400 prison lifers about how to apply for commutation. In other words, they’re using tax dollars to teach prisoners how to get out of jail.
Last year, US News and World Report ranked Pennsylvania 32nd among the states on overall quality of education. Yet that education problem is not Gov. Wolf’s highest priority. He’s focused on educating inmates, many of whom have committed heinous crimes, about being released from prison.
“A catastrophic bottleneck has doomed hundreds and hundreds of men and women to die in prison,” Fetterman recently told a gathering of inmates at State Correctional Institution Dallas. “But we have the best opportunity in 40 years to get people out.”
What dooms people to die in prison is not a catastrophic bottleneck but the commission of a crime — a crime so horrible that society has imposed a permanent loss of freedom as the penalty.
Fetterman, however, apparently believes himself wiser than the law enforcement officials, judges, juries, district attorneys, appellate courts and the rest of the justice system. If you felt safer with the likes of DiNardo and Kratz behind bars for life, think again. Our lieutenant governor is on a mission.
Commutation may sound like a wonderful opportunity for criminals who have been in prison for decades. But what about the loved ones who have spent those years mourning victims long dead and buried?
Commutation may sound like a wonderful opportunity for criminals who have been in prison for decades. But what about the loved ones who have spent those years mourning victims long dead and buried? Those lost lives and brutal deaths are inconvenient, easily forgotten footnotes in the Wolf administration’s rush to open prison gates.
Many so-called reformers like Fetterman look with both pity and sympathy for lifers. Some are elderly and feeble. About 700 lifers in Pennsylvania are 65 or older. It’s possible they are very different men and women than they were when convicted. Does that mean all is forgiven and we should undo the sentences handed down by judges and juries who heard the evidence and decided society would be safer with these individuals locked away for life?
Some of the inmates targeted by Fetterman’s Redemption Tour were convicted of felony murder, or second-degree murder. What that means is if someone dies while you are committing a felony – anything from aggravated assault to burglary to arson to rape – you can be charged with that person’s murder even if you didn’t directly cause the death. Fetterman doesn’t approve of this law. “If you haven’t taken a life,” he recently stated, “the commonwealth shouldn’t take yours through unending incarceration.”
But state law is clear. If someone dies while a group is engaged in felonious behavior, the entire group is accountable. The Pennsylvania Legislature is currently debating changes to this law and it might someday be modified. If so, it will be done by the will of the people – not by one elected official on a crusade.
To assist him with his cause, Fetterman has hired two former lifers as commutations specialists, George Trudel Jr. and Naomi Blount.
A jury convicted Trudel of murder in connection with the stabbing death of Casimir “Kaz” Barowiec in Frankford in 1986. Trudel claims he found his friend Robert Barrett outside a party arguing with Barowiec. Barrett stabbed Barowiec in the altercation, and the wound proved fatal. Trudel hid the murder weapon and served 31 years for his part in the killing. Prosecutors told a more sinister story: Trudel and Barrett were stealing drugs from the victim. Barrett pled guilty while Trudel insisted on a trial – echoes of the Bucks case, where DiNardo pled guilty and Kratz insisted on a trial. Trudel’s sentence was considerably more than what Barrett negotiated. Wolf freed Trudel in April.
Blount was sentenced to life in 1982 for her role in the stabbing death of a man who Blount and an accomplice attacked in retaliation for an assault he committed. Blount confessed but Fetterman now claims she has been “forensically exonerated.” Wolf commuted her sentence this year. At her Board of Pardons hearing, available on youtube, it does not appear anyone stepped forward to oppose her commutation. Her victim, long dead, may have no living family members to continue to speak for him. That’s the insurmountable flaw in dredging up decades-old crimes: witnesses, evidence and loved ones can be difficult to find.
Blount and Trudel, in their taxpayer-funded roles, will help streamline the cases heard by the Board of Pardons. Currently, the five-member board must vote unanimously on commutations, a requirement that Fetterman wants to change. He has already eliminated the application fees for clemency so all costs are borne by taxpayers.
If Fetterman has balanced those hires with family members of victims, they certainly have not received the same lavish press as the former inmates.
In announcing the hiring of Trudel and Blount, Fetterman said in a press release, “George and Naomi are also bringing something immeasurable to the lifer community: hope for a second chance at life.”
Think about what else is immeasurable: the pain of the victims and their families. They won’t get that precious second chance.
Who will tell the victims’ stories on the Redemption tour?
Linda A. Kerns is an attorney and one of the co-founders of Broad + Liberty.
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