The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons advanced the cases of four inmates seeking clemency in a merit review hearing last week, one of which was the case of John Brookins.
“Once he realized he made the list for the merit review, he called me one morning and said it was the first time in 30 years he’d slept through the night,” said Brookins’s wife, Karen. Karen has been advocating for not only John’s release, but also his innocence.
Brookins was arrested in 1991 for the murder of his good friend Sheila Ginsberg, when instead, he reports walking in on Ginsberg’s daughter, Sharon, stomping her with scissors. Witnesses from his trial testified to Brookins’ innocence and confessions from Sharon, but were not called in front of the jury.
He had applied for a merit review twice before this year, but his applications were lost.
Brookins’ case, along with the three other recommended applicants, will move to a public hearing in early March. The applications then move to Governor Tom Wolf’s desk for a final approval.
Gov. Wolf has signed off on more clemency applications in the last four decades, than any other governor.
“The board has overall released more people in the last 25 years than they ever have,” said Lily Rorick, an organizer for the Amistad Law project. “That’s the result of Lt. Gov. Fetterman making it a priority, that’s the result of movements pushing for years and years to emphasize the need for second chances.”
The process begins with gathering paperwork and court documents and conducting interviews to determine if the applicant is eligible to move forward to the merit hearing.
“The application process is rigorous,” said Karen. “Once you have the application filled out, that’s like the bulk of the work. You have to list out everything in the past, write about the entire event that occurred and your role in the event. You have to write about goals, include merits and any infractions in prison.”
If the applicant receives a majority vote in the merit review, the applicant is eligible for a public hearing. The hearings typically take place about one month after the merit review.
“This commutations application process is super rigorous and bogged down by bureaucracy in a lot of different places along the way, which, especially as a pandemic is spreading through a prison, has really serious consequences,” Rorick said.
Currently, the Brookins’ are working to secure John’s reentry plans, including solidifying a job, securing a home plan and dedicating time for mental health counseling and volunteering in the community. John is currently choosing between five job offers with hopes to someday open his own yoga studio.
On Thursday, Wolf took the final step for clemency applications from the end of last year, releasing another 13 incarcerated individuals. One of the 13 was Joe Ligon, the nation’s oldest juvenile lifer, was sent home from SCI Phoenix after spending 68 years in prison.
In 2017, Ligon was up for clemency but did not accept parole. He wanted his complete freedom. Ligon’s lawyer, Bradley Bridge, spent the last three years fighting for Ligon to be released with time served.