On Friday, Sept. 4, University graduate Felix Rosado lost his bid for commutation after his case was heard by the Board of Pardons. In 1996, Rosado was sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole, after following the advice of an incompetent attorney and pleading guilty to the most serious charge he was facing — first degree murder — even though he was not guilty of that crime. At age 18, under the influence of alcohol and drugs, Rosado recklessly played with a gun that went off and took the life of Hiep Nguyen. It was an accidental shooting with no intention behind it. Pennsylvania law states that third degree homicide is a killing that occurs as the result of recklessness. Therefore, Rosado should have pled guilty to third degree murder, which would have resulted in his sentence ranging from 10 to 20 years instead. 

“Felix is guilty of taking a life, but Felix is not guilty of first degree murder,” Dr. Jill McCorkel, Professor of Sociology and Criminology at the University and Founding Director of the Philadelphia Justice Project for Women and Girls, said. 

Only 18 years old and with “absolutely no understanding of criminal law or the way that the system works,” he was misled and the trajectory of his entire life changed. As his family could not afford a good lawyer, he received poor advice from his attorney, who said that pleading guilty to first degree murder “would spare his family and the victim’s family of a trial, and he would be eligible for release after 15 or 20 years.” So, Rosado acted upon the guidance. 

McCorkel shared that fact was not true in 1995, and it is not true today. 

“In Pennsylvania, life in prison means the rest of your natural life,” McCorkel said.

She expressed that “there’s a profound injustice in the sentencing in this particular case, one that capitalizes on Felix Rosado’s youthful ignorance and naivety and his family’s poverty.”

During his sentence, “Felix has pursued every available avenue to make amends for his crime,” the Instagram account @getwokenova stated. 

Rosado earned his undergraduate degree from the University through the prison and graduated summa cum laude in 2016. He has mentored numerous undergraduate and graduate students in the surrounding areas, co-founded a restorative justice organization called Let’s Circle Up, serves as an advisor to Eastern State Penitentiary Museum and has leadership roles in various advocacy organizations. 

“Felix is a brilliant scholar,” McCorkel said.

Rosado’s sole chance for release was through commutation. Instagram account @phillyjusticeproject shared in a post: “Commutation is a reduction in the sentence a court imposed following a criminal convention. . . issued by governors (for state criminal convictions) and presidents (for federal criminal convictions), a commutation does not eliminate the convention, nor does it imply the person is innocent of the crime.” 

Commutations granted in America have greatly reduced since the 1980s. Between 1971 and 1978, the Pennsylvania governor granted 251 commutations, while there were only 40 granted from 1979 to 2014.

Since commutations have become so rare in the state, and people are typically discouraged from applying for commutation before they have exhausted their appeals, many incarcerated people don’t pursue the option, @phillyjusticeproject told The Villanovan. Rosado just now arrived at this point because he had to exhaust his appeals, and a commutation is unlikely without having served much time. 

Philadelphia Justice Project explained that the opportunity for a commutation can be reached “through a lengthy application process that is vetted by district attorneys, judges and prison officials.” First, prison officials clear the person. Then, the Parsons Board must come to a majority vote in order for a public hearing to occur. Once he or she gets a hearing, the Board of Pardons interviews the person, victims are notified and the public hearing happens where a unanimous vote is needed in order to get a commutation. 

Rosado’s case was heard by the five-member Board of Pardons on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. He had the unanimous support of officials from his prison and DOC officials, with one DOC official describing him as a “blue chip inmate.” An official from the Office of Victim Advocate testified in support of Rosado’s commutation, which was the first time a member of that office has given support for the commutation of an incarcerated person. His good work also came up in the hearing with Jennifer Storm, claiming “that he does this not for his own gain — he did not ever anticipate coming up for commutation.”

Though his case was strong, unfortunately, two members on the PA Pardons Board voted against him, and Rosado lost his bid for commutation. He was offered no explanation and no suggestions on how to improve his application. Rosado will file a request for reconsideration by the end of next week.

Philadelphia Justice Project posted a letter from Felix Rosado to his supporters that he wrote after learning his petition was rejected. The caption read, “We’re obviously disappointed by the Board’s decision but we believe that we can mobilize the evidence needed to overturn it.” Rosado’s letter offers thanks to all his supporters and says, “Initially crushed and numb, as the evening went on I began to see this more as an opportunity than a setback. And we’re only two votes away. Onward still, Felix.”