Philadelphia Metropolis


Life Means Life

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For a convicted murderer, Haywood Fennell is a heck of a nice guy.

He's charming, polite and -- by most accounts -- a model inmate at Graterford Prison, where he is serving a life sentence for his role in the 1968 slaying of a man during a robbery in North Philadelphia.

Haywood -- known to everyone as 'Red Dog' (often shortened, simply, to 'Dog') -- is subject of our Cover Story this week, a graphic novel  -- more accurately, a graphic, non-fiction short story that tells about his life and times. 

Fennell is 60 years old now -- he'll be 61 on the Fourth of July -- and he's been in one prison or another since 1968 for the same crime. I got his name from Bill DiMascio, who is head of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, because we were looking for a lifer to profile.

For years, I have been reading or writing stories about young men -- sometimes in their late teens or early 20s -- who end up being sentenced to life in prison for murder, usually over some trivial matter -- a fight over a girlfriend, an insult to their manhood or, in Red Dog's case, a petty robbery that went awry.

What fascinated me weren't the crimes -- they are mundane -- but what happened next. At what point does a young man realize that the only way he is going to leave prison is in a pine box.  And how does that shape his behavior?

DiMascio, who regularly visits and advocates for these inmates, said the typical arc is that the first five years or so aren't that bad.  When they go to prison, these young lifers often meet friends from the neighborhood.  The play basketball and lift weights. There's a regularity to prison life that provides structure, maybe for the first time in their lives.

After those early years, their prison friends depart. They go from being a 20-something macho man to a middle-aged inmate, then to be a grey  'old head' prisoner.

The odds of them ever getting out are negligible. Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that have life sentences without parole. In addition, commutations of sentences -- recommended by the Board of Pardons and dispensed by the governor -- have become increasingly rare.

In the 1990's after several lifers got released  -- and promptly killed again (the most famous case involves the Warlock Robert 'Mudman' Simon), the state Constitution was changed to require all members of the Board of Pardons to agree to a pardon -- something that rarely happens with lifers since two of the five members are elected officials, the Lieutenant Governor and the Attorney General, whose political careers are on the line if a lifer gets out and goes bad.

DiMascio traces the history of commutations and clemency in the state in a piece he did on a case involving a lifer named Jackie Lee Thompson, who was 15 when he shot a girl to death near his home in rural Tioga County.  You can read his piece here.

No one disputes that Thompson killed the girl. The issue DiMascio raises is one of clemency -- how do we balance the need to punish with the quality of mercy? How do we weigh the acts of  a 17 year old against the life lived in 40 years in prison? How much punishment is enough?

I don't pretend to have answers to these questions, but DiMascio makes the case that our current system is out of whack by not allowing any variation from the law-and-order mantra of life-means-life.


-- Tom Ferrick


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