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Decades-old jean theft complicates commuted lifer’s release

The debate over criminal justice reform and second chances grew heated Friday when a lifer freed by the Pennsylvania governor remained jailed over a lame-duck prosecutor’s efforts to hold him on a 1992 shoplifting charge involving stolen jeans.

David Sheppard, 54, had served nearly 30 years for his role in a fatal robbery that took the life of a beloved pharmacist in West Philadelphia. Sheppard was not the gunman, but was serving life for felony murder before the state pardons board and governor approved his release.

Hours before he was to leave prison Friday, outgoing Delaware County District Attorney Katayoun M. Copeland filed the detainer over his failure to show for court decades ago in the stolen jeans case.

“This store went out of business 25 years ago, and even got the items back,” said Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who chairs the five-member pardons board and called Copeland’s tactic an abuse of power. “It’s just about cruelty, saying I want to keep this guy locked up over Christmas, his first Christmas out, an individual who never took a life and served 30 years for his proximity to the crime. It’s just vindictiveness.”

The slaying occurred not on Copeland’s turf but in Philadelphia, where progressive District Attorney Larry Krasner supported Sheppard’s clemency bid. The process takes several years, and an inmate needs a unanimous vote from the parole board — which includes the state’s attorney general and a victims expert — to send a case to the governor’s office.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who signed Sheppard’s petition, has granted 19 commutations since taking office in 2015. Only eight people had won similar reprieves in the 20 years prior.

Fetterman, an unconventional figure in state politics, has been visiting prisons to encourage the state’s 5,400 lifers to seek clemency, even if their earlier efforts were denied. One obvious group to target, he said, is people like Sheppard given automatic life sentences for felony murder, when someone was killed in the commission of another crime.

Sheppard, who Fetterman said was in the car outside when druggist Thomas Brannan was killed inside Love’s Pharmacy, earned a GED in prison and worked in the hospice unit with dying inmates. He hopes to live with a brother in Hagerstown, Md., but must first spend a year in a half-way house.

“The governor and I believe that we need second chances where it’s appropriate,” Fetterman said. “(But) if the morality of the second chance doesn’t move you, then what about the financial aspect of the state spending $70,000 a year to incarcerate an individual until they are carried out in a pine box?”

Copeland did not return phone messages Friday from The Associated Press, but in a statement said she opposed Sheppard’s release because the victim’s family was never notified about his petition.

“The issue here is not about a shoplifting charge, it is the complete failure of the criminal justice system to give victims and their families a voice,” Copeland said, echoing criticism that’s been fired repeatedly at Krasner as he’s implemented reforms. “Convicted felons are being empowered and extended leniency at the direct expense of victims and their families.”

Krasner’s office did not return messages seeking comment.

Copeland, a Republican appointed last year when her predecessor became a judge, lost this month’s election to Jack Stollsteimer, the first Democrat ever elected district attorney in the county’s history. He promised to take a hard look at the case when he takes office in January.

“Somebody’s going to have to convince me that it is in the interest of justice that we are prosecuting this man for a 27-year-old retail theft,” he said.

A judge, though, may beat him to it. Sheppard is expected to be brought to court Monday for a bail hearing on the shoplifting charge.

“I’m trying to figure out what I’m caught in the middle of,” Sheppard told The Philadelphia Inquirer this month. “I don’t think it’s about me. I don’t know if it’s a political thing. It can’t be about no 30-year-old retail theft.”

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