First of two parts

JUST ABOUT every newspaper columnist gets letters from convicts.

A recent one was unusual in two ways.

  • The Graterford lifer did not proclaim his innocence.
  • He claimed a judge gravely misinformed him on the consequences of a plea deal, and when I contacted the judge, he admitted the mistake.

What crosses my desk is seldom so clear-cut.

Based on an inaccurate explanation in 1990 by Common Pleas Judge Theodore McKee of what his plea bargain would mean, Marcus Perez, then 19, pleaded guilty to homicide.

Based on what the judge said, Perez expected a sentence of 17 1/2 to 35 years. Instead, he was shocked when his sentence turned out to be life without possibility of parole.

Had Perez received the sentence he expected, he would be eligible for parole about now. Instead, the 40-year-old Perez has served 21 years and still sees no light at the end of the tunnel.

I have no sympathy for murderers, but Perez - a first-time offender with a ninth-grade education at the time of the crime - has served longer than some other killers.

More important than the specifics of his case is a principle: Justice must be fair, honest and correct.

I believe that and so does Judge McKee, who has risen from the Common Pleas bench to become chief judge of the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. McKee is highly respected for his intellect and integrity.

"I am totally befuddled here," McKee told me in an interview. "It's clear I led him to believe if he entered a guilty plea he would get out of prison after a long stay, but he would not get the life sentence he would otherwise be subjected to."

McKee told Perez the plea "would mean he would be eligible for parole in 15 years. I was dead wrong," McKee told me. To his further astonishment and embarrassment, McKee said, "Neither the defense attorney nor the D.A. corrected me."

Hunkering on a Montgomery County hilltop, the State Correctional Institution at Graterford is ugly on the outside and uglier inside - unless you like linoleum and gray paint.

It's hard to get out of, intentionally so, and it's hard to get into, even when you're on the prisoner's visitor list.

Everything from coins to keys to cellphones to jackets must be stowed in lockers, after which visitors get a serious security check that includes testing for trace amounts of drugs. Guards are methodical, in no rush.

Perez and I had corresponded, but I never saw him until he greeted me in the large, bare-bones room where visitors meet the incarcerated. At 5 feet 9 inches and 180 pounds, he's about Shane Victorino's size and looks a little like him, down to a quick smile.

His day starts at 6 a.m. with a head count and ends in lock down at 8:45 p.m. In between, there are meals, visits to the library and his job in HVAC - heating, ventilation, air-conditioning. He previously earned certificates in warehouse management and operating everything from sewing machines to forklifts. He's taken electronics courses and computer training. He earned his high-school diploma on the inside, understanding - too late - that dropping out of Olney High put him on the path to where he is today.

"I had a good family. I had good parenting, it's just that I chose to do what I wanted to do," he ruefully admits, which meant "running the streets and hanging with the wrong crowd."

That led to him carry a gun he bought on the street - and murder. He and a friend who was owed $150 confronted the man who borrowed it, a scuffle broke out and Perez shot the other man.

If you're wondering why Perez didn't cry out for justice long before now, he did. A chain of events, a broken chain, really, thwarted him. Five appeals made under the Post Conviction Relief Act were denied, mostly on the basis of lawyerly technicalities that would dismay a layman.

In 2009, Marc Bookman, of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, threw a Hail Mary - a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to take up the case.

If you lay aside the legal rhubarb and manipulation, here is the single, incandescent, inescapable point: Judge McKee made a significant mistake - he admits it - and Perez is paying for it.

Perez isn't seeking a "Get Out of Jail Free" card. He is asking only to have his sentence changed to the 17 1/2 to 35 years he was led by a judge to believe he was getting.

Benjamin Disraeli said, "Justice is truth in action."

Judge McKee gave us the truth, but Perez is not getting action. To not repair him is unjust.

A huge step forward would be for the D.A. not to oppose Perez's next appeal.

Tomorrow, I'll tell you what D.A. Seth Williams says.

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