Reginald McFadden was a convicted murderer who had his life sentence commuted and was released on July 1994 from a Pennsylvania prison. On the evening of September 21st, he broke into the home of a 55-year-old woman named Jeremy Brown. He assaulted, robbed, and repeatedly raped her during a 5-hour ordeal, leaving her on her bed with her hands and feet bound with tape. Two weeks before he assaulted her, he committed a murder, and one week after Jeremy’s assault, he raped and killed 2 more women. Jeremy Brown was his only surviving victim. It’s unclear why exactly he let her live, but Brown attributes it to a sort of “bond” that she made with McFadden. “He put both his hands on my neck and started to strangle me. But here’s the miracle of all times. I put my hands on top of his and I said in a little voice, what are you doing? You’re hurting me. And he let go.”
The following year, Jeremy Brown’s daughter, Samantha Broun, gave a speech to the Senate Judiciary, pleading for the Pennsylvania to seal up whatever crack McFadden had managed to squirm out of. The crime itself was exactly the type of crime that draws in the media, elicits outrage, and creates change: a black man rapes a middle-class white woman. Commutation had long been practiced in Pennsylvania as a reward for good behavior; lifers who had already served 20-30 years were given second chances. In McFadden’s case, he was serving life for a murder he committed in 1969, when he was 16, in the company of three other teenagers. He applied for commutation 7 times before he finally succeeded on his 8th attempt.
As a result of McFadden’s crimes following his commutation, Pennsylvania laws have been amended to make receiving commutation nearly impossible. In the 20 years leading up to McFadden’s release, 285 prisoners with life sentences received commutations. 20 years after, only 8 have been so lucky. The population of prisoners with life sentences was negatively correlated with this. Pre-McFadden, it was close to 800. Post-McFadden, the number approaches 5,800– 75% of which are people of color. Because of one man who slipped through the cracks, the door has been slammed shut on so many prisoners who would not cause problems if released. Out of all of the commutation success stories, none got as much coverage as Reginald McFadden’s did: whether we want to attribute this to race, class, or other factors is another matter. What happened to Jeremy Brown was devastating and certainly strict measures when considering commutations are necessary; but to equate all lifers with Reginald McFadden is wrong. It is equivalent to placing no faith in reformation, it leaves lifers completely demoralized and stripped of hope (thereby even less likely to want to reform). I’m not saying that every single criminal can be reformed and that we should give everyone a second chance. Rather, we should not let isolated cases have such far-reaching impacts on policy, particularly when it has been proven effective.