A Life Sentence


Raney Aronson: I’m Raney Aronson, Executive Producer of the PBS series FRONTLINE, and you’re listening to The FRONTLINE Dispatch. This time, “A Life Sentence: Victims, Offenders, Justice and My Mother,” a special presentation in collaboration with the public radio site, and This American Life.

Raney Aronson: There are more than 2000 people in prisons across the country who were convicted of murder as juveniles and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. But recent Supreme Court Rulings have found such sentences unconstitutional and they’ve set in motion a process of re-evaluating these “juvenile lifers.” To close out the first season of The FRONTLINE Dispatch, we have three stories by producers Samantha Broun and Jay Allison. The stories will come out once a week for the next three weeks. This first piece was originally made for the public radio website, and we are presenting an update to a version that aired on This American Life. It’s the story of a terrible crime with a far-reaching effect.

Ernest Preate: It’s a single moment, turning point for how we deal with prisoners and how politicans deal with the criminal justice system.

Raney Aronson: This is an intensely personal documentary, but it extends into public life and into the heart of our political and correctional systems. Especially in Pennsylvania. A caution, the program contains descriptions of sexual violence and may not be suitable for some listeners.  Here’s Samantha Broun.

Samantha Broun: There’s no way to ease into this story. So I’ll just start. In 1994, my mother was the victim of a violent crime. She was 55 years old and living alone in Nyack, NY.  On the evening of September 21st a stranger came into her backyard. The stranger attacked her from behind. Five hours later, he left her lying on her bed. Hands and feet bound with tape. Alive. She survived. Whatever horrible thing you imagine happened to her in those five hours likely did.  I still find it hard to believe, to accept what she went through. I know that a lot of people have been the victims of crimes. I’ve had my car stolen. My apartment broken into. I felt violated after those events. But what happened to my mom was unimaginable. Undigestable. What happened to her changed our view of the world. When Reginald McFadden was arrested and charged with the crimes against my mom, my feelings shifted from terror to outrage. I wanted someone to take responsibility for what went wrong. Which is how I ended up testifying in front of a senate judiciary hearing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Samantha Broun: I would like to thank Governor Ridge….Attorney General Preate. Chairman Greenleaf and the Senate Judiciary Committee…

Samantha Broun: That’s me in February 1995 - in front of a panel of Pennsylvania senators and a room full of reporters –– and I’m pissed.

Samantha Broun: I am here today because last July, Reginald McFadden, a convicted murderer was released from a Pennsylvania prison.

Samantha Broun: It turned out that the guy who randomly attacked my mom was a convicted murderer and his life sentence without parole had been commuted. After 24 years, he walked out of prison in Pennsylvania and within days moved to Nyack NY, less than a mile from where my mother lived.

Samantha Broun: On September 21st, while my mother was taking out her garbage, Reginald McFadden

Senator: You just take your time.

Samantha Broun: Reginald McFadden brutally attacked, then beat, robbed, repeatedly raped and kidnapped my mother during a five-hour ordeal.

Samantha Broun: I couldn’t understand how Reginald McFadden had been let out of prison and I wanted to be sure whatever crack he slipped through was sealed shut. And it seemed as if that’s exactly what happened. The Pennsylvania state constitution was changed. Commutation for lifers became nearly impossible to get. My testimony helped make that happen. My mom’s case was a big deal. McFadden was a big deal. It was one of those crimes that makes people angry and scared. That becomes a symbol for a lot of things. And because it happened during an election, it even had an impact on who became the governor of Pennsylvania. A few years ago –– nearly twenty years after all this happened–– my mother moved from her home in New York to one near me on Cape Cod. I had thought it would be an easy adjustment for her. Less congestion. More ocean. But it wasn’t. Every little sound, she was convinced was a stranger in her house. She imagined walks in the woods would have some violent end. She lost sleep. She was scared to death. It was the aftershock from her assault, of course. From McFadden. Seeing my mother struggle rattled me. I was surprised at the intensity of it after all these years. I couldn’t stand to see her suffering, still. That's when I decided, I needed do something. I started digging around, reaching out to people related to the case. I wasn’t sure what I was doing exactly or why. I just wanted to get us unstuck. Maybe move the story forward. Rethink it. Something. I’ve already told you this isn’t an easy story to tell. It won’t be an easy one to listen to. I suppose I could start with how the system failed. Or with McFadden’s family in Philadelphia. I could start with the thousands of prisoners whose lives were affected by McFadden. Or I could tell you about the political careers both launched and destroyed. But instead I think I’ll save those parts and start where I usually start which is with my mother.

Samantha Broun: And how are you feeling about today?

Jeremy Brown: Well, I’m curious what you’re going to ask me about….

Samantha Broun: Well, I thought today, we would talk about September 21st…Um, I have to say I’m feeling nervous about talking about it because I don’t know that you and I have ever sat across from each other and had this conversation.

Jeremy Brown: I guess for me…it’s easier when I’m talking to strangers or when I’m just talking about um, how I survived. But when I tell a loved one…it’s much deeper. It just goes deeper into what really happened to my spirit and my soul.

Samantha Broun: Are you, are you, um, okay to do this?

Jeremy Brown: I’d like to try. I’d like to try.

Samantha Broun: Okay. I’d like to try too. But I, I worry about it being hard for you. You know? Like, I guess I worry that it will bring it to the surface in a way that maybe it hasn’t been or doesn’t have to be. Or that might be hard for you.

Jeremy Brown: No, I think we need to try this because we’ve decided to do it and we’re not quitters are we. (Laughs.) Let’s try it.

Samantha Broun: By the way, my mom is Jeremy Brown. She is 78 now but you’d never know it. She looks 15 years younger. She’s bright eyed. And elegant. And full of life. In the fall of 1994, she was living in a little house she had bought after she and my father divorced. I lived there with her for a year or so –– working and saving money for graduate school. I moved out at the beginning of September. It was the first time in my mother’s adult life that she was living alone.

Jeremy Brown: I was never afraid of anybody. I was…I felt very safe.

Samantha Broun: Do you remember the day of September 21st? Do you remember was it sunny? Did you go to work? What kind of…do you remember anything about the day?

Jeremy Brown: My memory is that it was a very ordinary day of going to work…

Samantha Broun: When this happened, my mom was working as a drug and alcohol counselor.  Helping people kick addictions.  When she got home that night…

Jeremy Brown: …it was time, I thought to get the recyclables outside and the garbage down to the curb.

Samantha Broun: She went out the kitchen. Into the breezeway…

Jeremy Brown: … through the door and the moon was out and it was lovely out.

Samantha Broun: She bent over to pick up the box of recyclables and was struck with a fist? A pipe?

Jeremy Brown: It was like if somebody threw a bowling ball at your back that’s how hard it hit me.

Samantha Broun: Her arms were pinned behind her.

Jeremy Brown: This person put his face, right in my neck next to my ear

Samantha Broun: My mother screamed.

Jeremy Brown: He kept yelling shut up in my ear. Shut up.

Samantha Broun: She struggled. She even bit down on the gloved hand he put over her mouth.

Samantha Broun: Did you see him?

Jeremy Brown: No. He was behind me. And…After I bit him was when I believe he began to hit me in my head. And only in my head. Until I passed out.

Samantha Broun: My mom grew up about twenty minutes from where she was living in 1994. She is the youngest of five children. Her father was an apple and peach farmer. The story goes that she was supposed to be a boy, which is how she ended up with the name Jeremy. When she was old enough to leave home, she tried college but dropped out and moved into New York City to make a go of it as a singer. She was in the chorus of My Fair Lady on Broadway when she met my dad. My mom stopped auditioning in the city once she had my brother and me. But she never gave up singing or the theater. It wasn’t until her early 50s that she became certified as a drug and alcoholism counselor. She was really good at it. McFadden pulled my mother up and pushed her toward the house. One of her eye sockets was broken.  Her nose fractured. Her teeth knocked loose. Her eyes were swelling shut. McFadden demanded she not look at him. When they got in the house he draped a towel over my mother’s head.

Jeremy Brown: …And he started to take my pants off. And I remember so clearly thinking what in the world is he doing? By then, I was a typical rape victim. You go to a place where you have no idea what’s going on. None of the words that apply to what’s going on come into your head. You’re in a space that just does not understand anything. So that you can look down at a strange man pulling your pants off and think why is he doing this? What is this? I don’t remember specifically much after that except that he did rape me on that bed. My bed.


Samantha Broun: McFadden started to ask my mom all sorts of questions. She decided not to lie about anything. Her sense was if she was honest she might connect to something in him.

Jeremy Brown: …Something beneath the violence…innately I just knew that I should talk very straight and calmly to this guy and not let him get me hysterical. Because I just sort of had a feeling that if I got hysterical, I’d die.

Samantha Broun: What my mother had no way of knowing then was that McFadden did plan to kill her. In fact, he had murdered Robert Silk on Long Island just two weeks before. The week after he attacked my mom, he sexually assaulted and killed 78-year-old Margaret Kierer also on Long Island.  And police say he killed Dana Demarco, in Rockland County the week after that. She was 39 years old. The police eventually referred to McFadden as a serial killer. My mother, it turned out, was his only surviving victim. Stories like these get shortened over time to sentences like the one I started with –– “My mother is the victim of a violent crime.” And usually you leave it at that. I know it’s hard to hear the details. But you won’t understand why this crime got so much attention … and why it’s so hard for my mom to get it out of her head, if you don’t hear what actually happened. So let me try to tell you –– in a condensed version for all our sakes –– the rest of what happened to my mother that night. McFadden put my mother in a sleeping bag and took her in her own car to various ATMs to steal her money. He beat her when she tried to escape. There was one point during the night –– and this is key –– that my mother finally saw him.  They were standing in front of a bureau that had a mirror hanging over it. They were looking through her jewelry.

Jeremy Brown: …And I just tipped my head up enough so that my eyes came out from under the towel and in the mirror, I saw him behind me. And he was a black man. And he needed a shave…

Samantha Broun: What did you think when you saw him?

Jeremy Brown: I remember thinking…he is cleaner and neater than you would think a criminal doing all of these horrible things would be. To me he was not the stereotypical criminal.

Samantha Broun: At the end of the night, he took my mother to a place we now know was off the Garden State Parkway. It’s the same spot where they later found Dana DeMarco’s body.  He raped my mother again and then…

Jeremy Brown: …he put both his hands on my neck and started to strangle me…but here is the miracle of all times, I put my hands on top of his and I said, in a little voice, what are you doing? You’re hurting me. And he let go…

Samantha Broun: What do you think happened what do you think happened in that moment?

Jeremy Brown: I hate to use the words like bond or love or anything like that…but, by then, he felt bonded somehow or other enough to me to respect me…I think he lost the, the drive…if you’re going to kill a lamb, you’re going to have to do it very quickly, right.  Because if you start to look at the lamb or listen to the lamb or play with the lamb, you’re not going to hurt it. And I think that’s what happened.

Samantha Broun: McFadden brought my mother back to her house. Bound her hands and feet with tape. And eventually he walked out. It was close to three in the morning when my mother reached for a phone. She called my brother who lived near by.

Jeremy Brown: ...and I just flew down that stairs. I don’t even remember my feet hitting the stairs. Into his arms. And he was screaming. And he was spinning around for some reason. He sort of put his arms up over his head and he was running around and around. And I’m holding him and grabbing him and trying to stop him. And just kept saying it’s okay, it’s okay. Get me to the hospital.

Samantha Broun: When I got the call that this happened, I packed up my belongings at graduate school and I headed home. When I arrived at the hospital the next day and saw her barely recognizable face –– my mother tells me I screamed. My heart had never been broken like this before. I had never been exposed to such violence. Never felt the rage that it inspired in me. Never imagined I would want revenge like I wanted revenge on Reginald McFadden.

It’s difficult to look beyond the devastating details of what happened to my mother that night but when I do, I see that in the big picture, other things matter too. The fact is crimes like these are rare. But it’s crimes like these a black man, a repeat offender, attacking a white middle class woman that inspire fear and outrage in communities across the country and crimes like these that change things –– which is exactly what happened next. But in the moments before this became swept up in the media, before it became a man hunt, before a jury was selected and a verdict issued, before it ruined some careers and made others, before it was used to change laws …in the moments before all that and in every single moment since, there is simply the unbelievable truth that this happened to my mother.

[NEWS CLIP] Reginald McFadden was found guilty of raping, robbing, and beating a 55-year-old woman…

[NEWS CLIP] It did not take the jury long to return a verdict yesterday. Fifteen minutes…

[NEWS CLIP] Today’s verdict means the end to a long and painful ordeal for the victim in this case.

[NEWS CLIP] Most rape victims prefer to remain anonymous. Not this 55-year old social worker.

[NEWS CLIP] My name is Jeremy. Jeremy Brown. How wonderful it feels to tell you who I am.

Samantha Broun: Once the trial was over, my mother went public. She gave speeches. Made appearances on TV. She was named a woman of the year by CBS.

[NEWS CLIP] …has Jeremy Brown earned a place of honor in the history of rape convictions? “She certainly has and she is certainly, I know, an inspiration to many of the women who have not had the ability to go forward.”

Samantha Broun: Beyond the amazing fact that she had survived the attack, there was another reason my mother wanted to speak out. It’s that she had survived the trial too.

Samantha Broun: In one of the most surreal twists of this whole ordeal, Reginald McFadden defended himself in court. Which meant he cross-examined my mother. Trial transcripts show exchanges like this. McFadden asked: “But at sometime in that night your attacker got out the car and walked around and closed the door and hollered at you?”My mother replied: “I think he did. He – you beat on me from the front seat and I was very scared.  I thought you were going to kill me right then…”

[NEWS CLIP] Jeremy Brown: Basically, I’m mad as hell and I gotta talk about it. Think about being tortured by a stranger for five hours. Think about listening to his voice telling you all those disgusting things to do for five hours. And then have to sit a courtroom. Listen to people call him Mr. McFadden. And think what it would do to you to have him say your name.

Samantha Broun: My mother shared her story because she felt better when she did, or at least less alone. And because she hoped that by speaking out it might change things for herself. For others. The day after McFadden’s sentencing, I returned to graduate school. Eventually, my mother started working again as an addiction counselor. She even moved back into her house  ––  it wasn’t easy but it was important, she said, that he not take the house away from her. When I set out to interview people, I started with my mom and then I drew up a list of names – cops, politicians, journalists, academics, other victims – and my brother.

Samantha Broun: Are you nervous?

Tim Broun: Not really. No.

Samantha Broun: Are you uncomfortable?

Tim Broun: I’m a little impatient. So, yes. Okay.

Samantha Broun: Okay. Anyway I wanted to say –– see you’re chewing your gum.

Tim Broun: I know but you’re talking.

Samantha Broun: But I can hear it.

Tim Broun: Okay.

Samantha Broun: Tim is older than me but only by fifteen months. It’s an age difference that has stopped mattering now that we’ve both reached 50. You probably remember that Tim was the first person to see my Mom the night she was attacked. In twenty years, we’ve never discussed any of it.

Samantha Broun: Um, do you have any questions about it that you’ve never had answered?

Tim Broun: No, I don’t…you know I almost –– part of me, it’s like, maybe I’m in denial about it. I don’t know. But you know, a lot of people have been through a lot of really bad shit…And that includes seeing people killed…Car accidents. Going to war…Physical abuse.  You name it. It’s all out there. You know so…I don’t think about why. Or why my mother or you know. It’s a fucking horrible thing that happened. Really bad… But she’s alive and you know, she’s a completely physically capable person living a full and rich life. was a long time ago...but I don’t, I don’t as far as I know, I don’t carry it around with me as like, you know some weight or stone or…what have you.

Samantha Broun: I do still carry it with me. Sometimes it sits so quietly I think it might be gone. But other times it courses through my system with such surprise and force it makes me dizzy.  It happens in mundane moments: Like recently my mom called from a highway rest stop to say hello and that she’d just bought a hot dog.  It suddenly hits me: she survived a serial killer. And the reality of what could have happened overwhelms me. I explain to Tim that I’m headed out to find the others who were affected by this event. I tell him I have questions I want answered …  and I think talking to others will help somehow. I tell him I think about forgiveness. I hope that doesn’t seem crazy. But that’s what we’re all taught, right? That if we can forgive, we get some sort of relief. But … how do you do that? I know my mother is very clear. She’ll never forgive McFadden. And I could guess about my brother.

Samantha Broun: Do you think you’ve forgiven him?

Tim Broun: No.

Samantha Broun: Do you think you need to? Or want to?

Tim Broun: Me? Not particularly. Fuck him. I don’t give a shit about him. I don’t even really like discussing it to be honest with you. Although this has been okay.

Samantha Broun: Why don’t you like discussing it?

Tim Broun: I don’t really see the point.

Samantha Broun: I wish I had a little bit of that.

Samantha Broun: I mean, I’m doing the opposite thing here, right. I’m like talking to lots of people about it…what do you think of that? What do you think of me talking to lots of people?

Tim Broun: I’m kind of curious what the point of the whole project is. But, go for it, you know? Let’s see where it goes. I don’t know. Good for you. Better you than me.

Samantha Broun: I hope he’s right.

Samantha Broun: Near the top of my list of people to talk to were the men who had voted on McFadden’s commutation from prison in Pennsylvania. Some background first. Pretty much the only way out for lifers in Pennsylvania  –– besides escape or death –– is to have their sentence commuted. Historically, commutation has been common practice there. It serves as a release valve. A way to reward good behavior and give prisoners sentenced to life hope for a second chance. Typically, after serving 25 to 30 years of a life sentence, if lifers show remorse and behave themselves in prison…they have a shot at commutation. The crime McFadden was seeking commutation for happened in 1969. He was convicted of the burglary and murder of Sonia Rosenbaum, a 60-year-old woman in Philadelphia. McFadden committed the crime with three other teenagers. He was 16 at the time. His record was already filled with over a dozen arrests and for this crime he was sentenced to life without parole. By 1992, McFadden had been in prison for just over twenty years. He had applied for commutation seven times with no luck. The 8th time was different. He succeeded.

Ernest Preate: I was very skeptical to my fellow pardons board members.

Samantha Broun: Republican Ernest Preate was the attorney general for Pennsylvania in the late 80s early 90s. He was the only person to vote no on McFadden’s commutation.

Ernest Preate: I said I don’t, I don’t like this guy. I don’t think he’s ready to go…I’m very, very hesitant to recommend him to the governor.

Samantha Broun: Preate thought McFadden was too young, just 39, and that he could easily go on to commit other crimes.  He told me something else that shed light on the case.  Apparently the department of corrections supported McFadden because McFadden had ratted on fellow prisoners…. during violent riots that erupted at the Camp Hill prison in the 1980s.

Ernest Preate: The department was recommending him. The department of corrections was recommending him. So that this was part of the pay back to McFadden was we’ll recommend you for commutation because you’ve been helpful to us in dealing with the riot at Camp Hill.

Samantha Broun: Nearly everyone  I spoke with mentioned that McFadden’s cooperation at Camp Hill helped him get his commutation.

Mark Singel: I have a feeling this is going to be grueling, huh.

Samantha Broun: I get the sense that you’re scared I’m going to…

Mark Singel: I’m scared of something; I don’t know what it is.

Samantha Broun: Well, I’m nervous about this, I mean I have thought a lot about you over the last twenty years…

Samantha Broun: Five people sit on the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons. When McFadden applied for commutation in 1992, Democrat Mark Singel was the Lt. Governor and the head of the board. Although his vote counted the same as everyone else’s, it was Mark Singel more than anyone who was blamed for what happened once McFadden got out.  He was the former board member I most wanted to talk to. When I thought of other people who must be haunted by this event, I thought: Mark Singel.

Mark Singel: The board of pardons was always skeptical. I mean the numbers of people that we even considered was miniscule. Microscopic.

Samantha Broun: The board never met Reginald McFadden. Amazingly that wasn’t part of the commutation process in Pennsylvania. But others spoke on his behalf. And McFadden had to submit piles of paperwork including descriptions of past crimes, names of current sponsors, and accomplishments in prison.

Mark Singel:  What I recall about the McFadden presentation was that everyone was on board…the psychologist and the warden and the corrections people were all saying that this is somebody who had done extraordinarily well.

Samantha Broun: The board voted 4 to 1 in favor of McFadden’s commutation. Singel voted yes. He believed he was doing the right thing.

Mark Singel: I have to tell you that my own personal background, I grew up in a very um, Catholic and a specific type of Catholicism –– Byzantine Catholic…when we were very young, the whole family would go in and sing the mass every day in Old Slavonic. And the phrase that we would sing…over a hundred times during the liturgy was “Gospodi pomilui” –– “Lord have mercy, lord have mercy,” And my family believed in that.

Samantha Broun: That makes you emotional.

Mark Singel: Yeah. Yeah.

Samantha Broun: So you felt like you were, here you were in a position to have mercy on people.

Mark Singel: To do my job. As a human being. Not just as the Lt. Governor.

Samantha Broun: When McFadden walked out of prison, he was 41 and had never spent a day of his adult life as a free man. Surprisingly McFadden didn’t go to a half-way house. A bureaucratic oversight. McFadden’s transition didn’t go well. Within a month, he went through two or three jobs and started stealing from his roommate. Within two months police say he started to spiral out of control. Murdering multiple people. And, of course, attacking my mom. During the first week of October, just 92 days after he was released from prison, Reginald McFadden was arrested as the prime suspect of these crimes. News of McFadden’s arrest arrived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania where Democrat Mark Singel was ahead in the Governor’s race against Republican Tom Ridge. In October of 1994, Tom Ridge wasn’t well known. Not even In Pennsylvania. He was a Congressman representing a small rural district. Mark Singel on the other hand had been the Lt. Governor for nearly eight years. The feeling across the state was that Mark Singel was a shoo-in.

Mark Singel: So, they were ready to just simply transfer the mantle and I could feel it all across Pennsylvania…Tom Ridge never got close. Never got close.

Samantha Broun: And then McFadden happened.

Mark Singel: …and all they had to do was put an ad up and put McFadden’s picture out there and say see, we told you. This is what happens when you’re weak on crime.

RIDGE ADS: Mark Singel votes to free a convicted murderer. The man Mark Singel voted to release is arrested for rape and murder…Mark Singel…bad judgment…too liberal on crime…How can we ever trust him again?...There’s a better choice. Tom Ridge. The judgment and character we trust.

Mark Singel: And then, everything shifted. The whole tectonic plates of my universe changed… And we watched that campaign disintegrate. It went from an 8-point lead to us being seven points behind in 48 hours. 15-point swing. I’ve never ever seen that in politics.

Samantha Broun: Mark Singel’s career as a politician was over and Tom Ridge’s was about to soar. It took months and a lot of persistence to land an interview with Ridge.

Samantha Broun: My understanding is that –– from what I’ve read and from what I remember –– is that Reginald McFadden was a real turning point in the election. Did, did you see it that way.

Tom Ridge: I can’t, I mean, I can’t doubt that it had an impact. Ah, but from my perspective, what it did for me was put an exclamation point on what I had been talking about for over a year.

Samantha Broun: I met Tom Ridge in a huge suite of offices in downtown Washington, D.C. where he now runs a security consulting firm. In 2001, George W. Bush asked Ridge to leave his post as Governor of Pennsylvania and to join him at the White House to head up what would become the new Department of Homeland Security. But back in 1995, having beaten Mark Singel in the election, Tom Ridge was being sworn in as the Governor of Pennsylvania. The main thing that won him the election was his stance on crime.

Samantha Broun: And so, once elected what did you feel your mandate was then on this issue?

Tom Ridge: Well, I told folks, if you elect me, one of the first things I’m going to do, I’m going to call a special session on crime and that’s exactly what we did.

Samantha Broun: The same special session on crime that I testified in. The same special session that focused on ‘getting tough’ and essentially put an end to any chance of commutation for lifers. Here’s the thing. This was the mid 90s –– crime was one of the top issues on most voters’ minds in Pennsylvania and across the country. People wanted to feel safe. For Tom Ridge, who was already running as a tough on crime candidate, Reginald McFadden’s spree was –– strange to say –– perfectly timed. Although spree’s like McFadden’s are extremely rare, it had the exact class and racial components to draw in the media and incite public hysteria.

Samantha Broun: A lot of people who I have spoken to talk about the constitutional changes that went into effect as a result of the special session…and that that makes it nearly impossible for people to have their sentence commuted…And I, as a person who testified at that special session and perhaps contributed to those changes being made, I think about that a lot because I think about the lives that are being impacted…Do you ever think about those changes and wonder if perhaps they’re too strict? Or wonder about the impact of those changes and the reduced number of people getting commuted?

Tom Ridge: Ah, candidly, it’s a fair question. But I haven’t given it much thought.  Most of my opinions I hold today I held twenty or thirty years ago but not all of them. So.

Samantha Broun: I’ve asked everyone this question and I think all the people I’m meeting with I’m choosing because I believe this incident changed their life personally.

Tom Ridge: Yeah.

Samantha Broun: And I’m wondering how you think this incident – McFadden – changed your life personally?

Tom Ridge: Well, I hope you’re not disappointed but I’m not sure it did. It changed your mother’s life. It changed the lives of many families. It certainly in a positive way, I’d like to think, changed the lives of hundreds if not thousands of other families and victims. But for me personally, the only thing it did was reaffirm in my own mind that the approach that I took toward reforming some of the criminal justice system was the right thing to do…

Samantha Broun: I think my personal connection to all this made some of the people I interviewed nervous and careful. That’s understandable. And it made me all the more grateful to Mark Singel  –– the guy who lost the election –– for the way he talked to me. Like when I asked him difficult questions like this one:

Samantha Broun: If you had the chance to um, say something to my mom…?

Mark Singel: Whew.

Samantha Broun: Or the family members of…

Mark Singel: Just that I’m terribly sorry. That ah, that I feel…to the people who were the immediate victims, I hurt them. And I didn’t mean to. So there you have it.

Samantha Broun: Hearing Mark Singel say this eased something in me. My mother felt the same way when I played it for her.

Jeremy Brown: That’s wonderful that he expressed such personal feelings with you…because that’s the human being.

Samantha Broun: Um…the last we talked and went through what happened on September 21st.  How was that for you?

Jeremy Brown: I think it went pretty well. I do. Um, is it difficult for me to share it or to revisit it? No, I, it’s a reality for me. I guess the difficulty is carrying it around. And…

Samantha Broun: What are the scars that you have from this? And I don’t know if you actually have physical scars but any kind of scars. What are the scars that you have?

Jeremy Brown: I can’t sing. That’s it. It’s huge.

Samantha Broun: What does it mean for you not to be able to sing?

Jeremy Brown: Well, I was a bird who could sing. I can sing right? But I cry so it stops me. And that’s very painful because that was who I was. I was a girl who was born with a voice. And I could sing and I can’t now.

Samantha Broun: It’s true. My mother was not only a singer on Broadway but she used to be one of those people who would break into song in public places. I haven’t heard her do that in years. By this time I had been working on this project for well over a year. I still had people I wanted to talk to. Prison staff, former inmates and people close to McFadden.  Like Charlotte.

Samantha Broun: Let me just say that I, I appreciate that you are sitting here because I’ve thought about you a long time –– your family –– and it took me twenty years to pick up the phone and figure out where you were. And even once I thought I knew your number, it took me a long time to make the call. And then I felt bad every time I called back because I thought, they don’t want to talk to me, you know?

Charlotte McFadden: And you know what? It’s true. Your feelings led you right. But look where it put you.

Samantha Broun: It was mid-July. Hot. And I was sitting in a car with Charlotte McFadden. Reginald’s youngest sister. We were in front of her house in Philadelphia. The house McFadden grew up in. Charlotte had no idea I was coming. Neither did I, until I decided to the day before. When I got there, she was out on the street. Working with a neighbor under the hood of her car. I saw her and immediately knew she was a McFadden. She knew who I was too.

Charlotte McFadden: I felt it. That’s why I turned my back because I couldn’t look at you because I felt it too.

Samantha Broun: It was an awkward beginning. But we ended up talking for over an hour. I asked her how things have been for her all these years.

Charlotte McFadden: …I still, like inside hurt. I’m, I’m in here hurting because I have to squeeze it down just to get through so…even like now, like when I go to use my name, certain bells get rung because people say McFadden.

Samantha Broun: Charlotte talked about her brother and what his crimes had done to her family. She said he was pretty young when he started getting into trouble. But for her, he was always her protector. Charlotte had questions for me too.

Charlotte McFadden: …Your mom, like I would love to give her a hug and let her know that I’m glad she survived it and everything is okay but I know somewhere in her head, she got to still be going through a turmoil. It’s hard, probably very hard for her. And, it’s understandable. You know it’s very understandable. Is she okay now?

Samantha Broun: She’s okay but it haunts her every day.

Charlotte McFadden: Um hm. I can imagine. I could imagine.

Samantha Broun:   Do you think…I think about forgiveness a lot.

Charlotte McFadden: Um hm.

Samantha Broun: Because I would really like to forgive your brother. And I think that’s part of me doing this too is I want to understand him and why he did what he did. And I think if I could forgive him, I’d feel better.

Charlotte McFadden: Yeah. And so you haven’t forgiven him yet?

Samantha Broun: I feel like I walk towards it but when I talk to my mom and see how it still –– she carries it…

Charlotte McFadden: You can’t.

Samantha Broun: I feel like I would be disloyal to her if I forgave him.

Charlotte McFadden: That’s understandable though…

Samantha Broun: Interviewing McFadden himself was something I had always thought about. And after talking with Charlotte, I felt it was the obvious next step. I wanted to sit across from him. I needed to hear if he was remorseful. If he was remorseful, and I could believe him, maybe that would help. Maybe. But when I called Attica  –– the prison in New York where he is now –– to ask about interviewing him, I was told that McFadden is in solitary confinement. He’ll be there for five years. He had pulled a fake gun on prison guards. He had planned to escape. On top of that, prison officials and crime victim advocates expressed concern about my wanting to talk to him. They described McFadden as manipulative and unpredictable and I began to fear he might say things about what happened that night that I wouldn’t want to hear. Still, I tried several avenues to get to him, through the department of corrections, but I was denied permission to record. I do have some courtroom audio of him during the period of his murder convictions. Just to give you an idea of who he was then. The music was added by a TV show it was used on.

Reginald McFadden: I guess this is an opportunity for me to say I’m remorseful. I’m sorry. Well, I’m not remorseful. I’m not sorry because I’m not guilty. Yeah. Give me the maximum sentence. Matter of fact, give me a thousand years because it wouldn’t make a difference. Oh. If it was possible for me to sign my own death warrant, I don’t fear death. Because I’ve seen death a thousand times over. It don’t make a difference to me. Hmph.

Samantha Broun: Since I couldn’t record a conversation with McFadden, I tracked down someone who’d spent time with him. Mark Safarik, a former profiler with the FBI, who classified McFadden as a psychopath.

Samantha Broun: In my fantasy version of all this, I was going to end up going to meet him. And we’d have a conversation in which he had some remorse and that would help.

Mark Safarik: …and he honestly might tell you that he’s remorseful and sorry for what he did. I don’t believe that that would be true. And he will clearly understand who you are and in a sense why you’re there and I think he would make an effort to twist that in a way that would be harmful and hurtful. I don’t think anything good could come out of it...

Samantha Broun: So how is there resolution? Because I don’t feel it.

Mark Safarik: Yeah. I don’t know that there is –– I mean what’s the resolution? He’s incarcerated for the rest of his life. Was it a mistake to let him out? Absolutely. He should never have been let out. Um, but I don’t know that there’s ever any resolution. I think certainly that the edges of those wounds get softer but those wounds never go away. They never heal…

Samantha Broun: Talking to Mark Safarik, I understood –– or maybe I should say I finally accepted –– that I’d never get what I wanted from McFadden. I’m not going to see him express remorse.

Samantha Broun: What I’m left with is my own remorse for something I feel guilty about –– and that’s what has happened to lifers in Pennsylvania. That may sound weird. But I know my testimony contributed to their current situation.

PA TESTIMONY Samantha Broun: Each of you is in a position to do something. You will have the opportunity to vote on legislative changes that would reduce the chances of something like this from ever happening again. You owe it to Sonia Rosenbaum, to Margaret Kierer, to Robert Silk, and to my mother.

Samantha Broun: My words may have made only a small contribution to the changes that were to come, but they were still part of it. As a result of that special session on crime, the Pennsylvania State Constitution was amended to make recommendation for a commuted sentence nearly impossible. On top of that, for decades now, no politician has wanted to vote yes on commutations. For fear of professional suicide. And remember, all this happened in the 1990s. The ‘tough on crime’ era. The result? The door slammed shut on lifers.

Martin Horn: What I do remember most of all is that during the first year that I was the head of corrections in PA, the first 12 months…I remember feeling like, you know, the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke. And I mean we were just creating space as quickly as we could. It was a very dramatic time.

Samantha Broun: Martin Horn was Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Corrections under Tom Ridge. When the changes were put into place, it was Horn who had to deal with what those changes meant inside the prisons.

Martin Horn:…Lifers in the Pennsylvania system are actually a very stabilizing force…they have an interest in the civility of life within the prison, if you will…but the lifers during those several years that I was there were  really demoralized. And saw no hope of ever getting out. And a prisoner without hope is a much more difficult prisoner to manage than a prisoner who has some hope.

Tyrone Werts: My name is Tyrone Werts. I served close to 37-years incarcerated in Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania. Um, my sentence was commuted in 2010 by former Governor Rendell. And I’ve been home for about three years and a couple of months.

Samantha Broun: In 1975 Tyrone Werts was involved with a robbery. Someone was killed in the process. Werts, who was waiting in the car, was given life without parole for second-degree murder. Since his sentence was commuted, Tyrone Werts has been honored for the work he has done related to prison reform.

Samantha Broun: What role would you say McFadden played in your life personally?

Tyrone Werts: It was huge. Huge.

Samantha Broun: In the two decades leading up to Reginald McFadden, 285 lifers had their sentences commuted. In the two decades since  - as of December 2016 - there have been eight. From 285 to eight and Tyrone Werts is one of them.

Tyrone Werts: When I went in there were only about 800 lifers in the whole state serving life.  Now we have 5,000. McFadden kind of slammed the door shut on lifers in Pennsylvania.

Samantha Broun: To be exact, as of December 2016 there were 5,483 lifers in Pennsylvania prisons. The increase is mostly because of the overall growth in incarceration rates. Not because of McFadden. But because of McFadden, they have very little hope of commutation. Seventy-five percent of Pennsylvania’s lifers are people of color, mostly black and Latino men. In the 80s, Werts and McFadden were in the same prison for a while.

Tyrone Werts: We inside say that there are two kinds of crimes. There are economic crimes and psychological crimes. McFadden had a psychological crime.

Samantha Broun: Werts said that lifers pay close attention when someone’s commutation makes it past the board and to the Governor’s desk.

Tyrone Werts: …because the one thing we know as lifers that anybody that gets out, carry the weight of the lifer population on their back…So, I mean we talk about it all the time. About who we would let out. Who we wouldn’t let out.

Samantha Broun: And what was the feeling when people heard that McFadden had made it to the governor’s desk?

Tyrone Werts: …There was apprehension. There really was. I mean I heard that from a number of people say –– I hope this guy don’t make it.

Samantha Broun: With McFadden’s re-arrest and commutations essentially shut down, Werts said a dark cloud settled over Pennsylvania prisons.

Tyrone Werts: As a matter of fact, I think it’s still there because the hope has just been sucked out as a possibility of lifers getting out. It’s just been sucked away…Look, the day I walked out of Graterford, there were close to two hundred guys in the hallway, waiting to greet me as I left…I walked down that long corridor weeping like a baby. Crying because…I knew as I was leaving that all these guys that I was hugging was going to die in…Pennsylvania prisons because they are not going to get the same opportunity that I have. And without question, I recognize that based on the changes that were made as a result of Reginald McFadden and the horrible crimes he committed. And I really want to say that I really feel bad that this had to happen to your mother…but McFadden is not representative of the broader lifer population…he was truly an anomaly.

John McCullough: Other than Reggie, I don’t know a single lifer that we let go that got in trouble again. You know they just kind of go out and disappear.

Samantha Broun: John McCullough worked in Pennsylvania prisons for over thirty years. In fact, he was the Deputy Superintendent of Rockview Prison where McFadden was before his sentence was commuted.

John McCullough: So, the whole ripple effect from McFadden has been to make us more conservative, ah, why take the risk at all? Just let the easy ones out. Ah, and the sad thing is in a lot of cases, the easy one is the junkies who are going to go right out and shoot dope and get in trouble again. Where as a lot of these old lifers will never be a problem again.

Samantha Broun: I don’t know what it will take to undo what’s been done in Pennsylvania. In the late 90s, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of Pennsylvania lifers for their right to a fair shot at commutation. It remained in the courts for over ten years before it was finally dismissed Unfortunately, success stories of lifers like Tyrone Werts don’t create the same fervor that crimes like Reginald McFadden’s do. But after spending the past two and a half years investigating the effects of this crime, I want to tell you this. When I testified in Harrisburg back in 1995, I spoke from a place of fear and anger. I didn’t notice the political forces poised to capitalize on that. I didn’t have the distance I have now, to see what my testimony would be used for. What the consequences might be. My testimony equated all lifers with Reginald McFadden, and that’s not fair. Look, I don’t speak for all victims. I don’t even speak for my whole family. But, to set the record straight, I do believe in the possibility of second chances. My mom still suffers from post-traumatic stress but she tells me that this whole project has made her feel a bit lighter.

Samantha Broun: Um so I’m just wondering how it’s been for you to do this.

Jeremy Brown: Well, I have thought about how it shifted for me when you started to do this piece. Talking to all these people and saying, ‘How did affect you? Where are you now? How often do you think about it?’ It feels like the community is brought in again. So it strengthens me and I’m not alone.

Samantha Broun: And... she’s actually been singing. When she’s driving in the car or is home by herself.  She’ll sing. Not like she used to. She still cries. But she’s singing.

Massacre of El Salvador
Massacre in El Salvador
FRONTLINE, Retro Report and ProPublica examine the ongoing fight for justice for the horrific 1981 attack on the village of El Mozote and surrounding areas.
November 9, 2021