Locked up at age 18, first Pa. woman lifer in decades recommended for clemency

HARRISBURG — On Friday evening, Kerri Brosius stood up in front of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons and begged for mercy.

The plea was not for herself, but for her mother, Tina Brosius, who has been in prison since Kerri was a child.

Brosius was 18 years old and already the mother of two children in 1994, when she learned she was pregnant again — the result of a date rape. Her father had said if she had another child, he’d put all of them out on the street. She believed him. So, when she gave birth again, she allowed her newborn baby to drown in a portable toilet.

But even after being sentenced to life in prison, Brosius’ connection with her two older daughters remained strong. Kerri told the board about all the milestones her mother had missed — and asked them not to let even more time elapse.

“She has grown into a wonderful and supportive mother, and I think it’s time for her to be free,” she said. “She has paid her debt; 23 years is enough.”

The board agreed: All five members recommended clemency. Now it’s up to Gov. Wolf to grant it — and there’s no deadline for him to do so. But if he does, Brosius will be the first Pennsylvania woman in nearly three decades to win commutation of a life sentence.

Only nine women lifers have received commutations since 1971. The last one was in 1990.

Because life sentences in Pennsylvania exclude the possibility of parole, a commutation — recommended unanimously by the Board of Pardons and signed by the governor — is the only way out of prison for the state’s more than 5,000 lifers.

Such acts of clemency have become exceedingly rare. Between 1971 and 1978, 251 lifers including seven women were granted clemency. Commutations practically ceased in the 1990s, after Reginald McFadden, newly released from a life sentence, killed two people and raped a third. So far, Gov. Wolf has granted two commutations of life sentences.

Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, who chairs the Board of Pardons, said the board and its staff are working hard to process more applications, and provide hope when it’s merited.

“In many ways, our justice system is broken,” he said. “I believe we should be more about second chances in our state, and that’s the direction the Board of Pardons has been going in now.”

At the hearing, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who sits on the Board of Pardons, noted that Brosius’ sentence was “dramatically” longer than what’s typical in similar cases in Dauphin County.

Even John Cherry, who was Dauphin County District Attorney when Brosius was convicted of first-degree murder, testified that she had been in prison too long.

He had offered a deal if she pleaded to third-degree murder — at the time, that carried a sentence of 10 to 20 years — but negotiations fell through.

“I’m here because my sense of justice dictates I be here,” he said. “A case that should have been resolved as a third-degree sentence ended as one of life imprisonment.”

Absent from the proceeding was Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico, the prosecutor on the case in 1995.

Marsico doesn’t think commutation is appropriate just yet. “Maybe five or six years down the road.”

He considered the nature of the crime and the fact that she has served less time than many of the juvenile lifers currently being resentenced following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that life-without-parole for minors is unconstitutional. (Many of those individuals have been resentenced to 35 years to life, a term informed by current state law.)

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Tina Brosius participated in TEDx Muncy State Prison.

Still, many in Brosius’ community have stood by her.

On Friday, about 80 members of her family’s church chartered buses to attend the hearing, held in Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court chambers. For the first time in memory, the Board of Pardons had to ascertain the capacity of the room and print out hand-numbered tickets. More than 40 people were turned away.

In fact, her bid for clemency began at the church, Calvary United Methodist in Harrisburg. Stephen Grose, a Harrisburg litigator and a member of the congregation, had long been aware of her case. “She’s been on our church prayer list for the past 15 years at least.” In 2011, he conferred with his pastor and decided to help.

“It wasn’t asked. It was a calling,” he said.

He filed an application with the Board of Pardons in January 2013. It’s taken close to five years to wend its way through the system.

Both of Brosius’ daughters were there, as well as her parents.

The board members’ questions hinted at Brosius’ fraught relationship with her father, Ernest, which may have factored into the crime.

Ernest Brosius testified he had mended his relationship with his daughter while she was in prison.

Shapiro quizzed him about his feelings for his daughter: “Clearly, a big part of her emotional stability and well-being comes from the way in which you speak to her and treat her.”

Brosius said he was there for his daughter.

Shay Kerns-Barr, a retired official with the Department of Corrections, said Brosius was the most dedicated mother she had ever met in prison.

“Tina came to jail as a child — at 18, I believe she was still a child, and grew into an amazing individual. I believe in my 20 years I spent working in jail, Tina was the one inmate I believed in, the one inmate I thought would make something of her life, and the one inmate I prayed for.”