Inmate deserves to have courts keep their promises

Perez1
At Graterford, in front of a prison-supplied park-like backdrop, inmate Marcus Perez poses with his granddaughter Khylei, 6.

THE LONG ODYSSEY of Graterford inmate Marcus Perez continues, but on Tuesday an appeal was filed to seek court permission to correct the wrongful life sentence he received.

Perez should "have gotten relief 25 years ago; the claim is obvious," says Michael Wiseman, his court-appointed attorney. Perez's constitutional rights were violated, Wiseman's motion claims.

The 45-year-old Perez has spent 26 years in jail, doing life because of bad information he was given by a judge, who urged Perez to take a plea bargain.

To summarize: In 1990, after a judge told him that he would be sentenced to between 17 1/2 and 35 years, tops, Perez pleaded guilty to homicide. Instead, he got life without parole.

Judge Theodore McKee, then of Common Pleas Court, now chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, said that when he told Perez he would be eligible for parole, "I was dead wrong."

McKee told him "life" didn't mean "life" and, "You will not die in prison."

But the law recently had changed to "life means life," and McKee made a grievous error.

By the time Perez learned that the judge screwed up, the case had passed from McKee's authority, which meant that he couldn't correct his own mistake. Perez has filed many appeals, each pigheadedly opposed - first by D.A. Lynne Abraham, and now by Seth Williams.

A troubling aspect of the case is that several years after Perez was sentenced, the original transcript was improperly changed after a phone call from one of Williams' friends in the D.A.'s Office to the court reporter, who has since died. The changes undermined Perez's basis for appeal.

The transcript was changed in a "highly irregular" manner, the motion claims.

The original version has McKee saying "Life IMPLIES 17 1/2 to 35 years. I'm not saying you would receive that, but I'm saying that is the most you could receive if you go to trial."

The "corrected" version has McKee saying: "Life PLUS 17 1/2 to 35 years," etc.

Neither McKee nor Perez was informed of the changes, as is required. That alone should have gotten Perez a new hearing, but it didn't. It's as if no one cares.

The D.A. could do the right thing now and stop blocking Perez's appeals. Seth Williams must know this is a miscarriage of Justice, with a capital J.

But I don't know. A few days ago, he decided to retry Anthony Wright, a man convicted of murder, whose sentence was thrown out by the courts after DNA testing exonerated him. An obdurate Williams seems determined to ignore facts to keep men incarcerated. To what end?

It is clear Perez was made a promise by the courts that the courts did not keep. What happened to Perez undermines faith in Justice, with a capital J.

Attorney Wiseman wrote in his motion that when McKee misinformed Perez about the length of his sentence, that had the effect of "rendering his guilty plea involuntary, in violation of due process of law."

For the last five years, Perez and I have been pen pals, with him occasionally using the prison phone to call me. It's almost impossible for me to get him on the phone, as he doesn't have the freedom I have.

He has no freedom at all.

He lives in a 6-by-13 cell that he earned his way into by a bad choice of friends and by helping one of them collect a $150 debt that left another young man dead on the sidewalk.

Perez makes no excuses, blames no one but his young, stupid self. He doesn't want any special treatment, just the 17 1/2- to 35-year sentence McKee promised him. If the courts restore that, as they should, he would be eligible to apply for parole.

That doesn't mean he would get it. At worst, with the right sentence, he's nine years away from release.

"What frustrates me as a lawyer and a human being," says Wiseman, is that "esoteric, Byzantine procedures prevent a claim from being heard."

In jail, Perez has taken every course they offer, from computers to heating and air-conditioning to haircutting. He'll be able to support himself when he gets out.

That's important to him, as well as supporting emotionally and financially his daughter Shannon and her daughter Khylei.

As an incarcerated adult, Perez has tried to do the right thing, to become the man his stupidity prevented him from becoming.

That stupidity is nearly matched by the courts, which seem fixated on the minutia and technicalities instead of Justice, with a capital J.

stubyko@phillynews.com

215-854-5977 @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/Byko

Columns: ph.ly/StuBykofsky

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