Lack of fairness undermines justice - even for murderers

Marcus Perez, shown with daughter, Shannon, and granddaughter, Khylei, was assured a much shorter sentence than life.
Marcus Perez, shown with daughter, Shannon, and granddaughter, Khylei, was assured a much shorter sentence than life.
Posted: January 17, 2014

HAROLD MURRAY IV, 36, is getting another shot at justice.

Marcus Perez, 43, is waiting for his.

Murray was convicted in a 2005 revenge-murder in which the victim and her fetus died. He was sentenced to death for each. One problem: Defendants can't receive the death penalty in Pennsylvania for the death of a fetus, something the Montgomery County prosecutor, the defense attorney and the judge apparently didn't know. Heinous crime or not, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has now ordered a new penalty hearing for death of the fetus - even as the death penalty for the mother remains intact. It is not a pointless exercise. The issue is justice; following the law. The high court's decision was correct.

Perez's case is similar, but with tampering of the official record compounding an initial judicial blunder. From his cell in Graterford, he has petitioned the state Supreme Court.

In 1989, at age 18, Perez murdered a man while he and a friend were collecting a $150 debt. Based on an inaccurate explanation by then-Common Pleas Judge Theodore McKee of what his plea-bargain would mean, Perez, then 19 and a high-school dropout, pleaded guilty to homicide and was sentenced to "life." McKee assured him that actually meant 17 1/2 to 35 years and he would be eligible for parole in 15 years. He's now served 24 years and is not eligible for parole.

"I was dead wrong," McKee told me, because Pennsylvania law had just changed. Added to his personal chagrin is his professional astonishment that neither the District Attorney nor the defense attorney corrected him. As in Murray's case, all the officers of the court were asleep at the switch, and Perez is paying the price for their error.

By the time Perez learned that "life" meant life, the case was no longer McKee's to correct. He would if he could.

There are avenues of appeal. Perez has filed six appeals under the Post Conviction Relief Act, all reflexively opposed by the D.A. and most turning on lawyerly technicalities.

As an officer of the court, D.A. Seth Williams is supposed to be working for justice, not just for convictions. The record shows that is not the case.

Four years after Perez's sentencing, Assistant D.A. Jerome Teresinski contacted the court reporter and improperly had the trial transcript changed to undercut Perez's basis for appeal. The proper procedure is to make the request of the trial judge. If the change is warranted, the judge notifies all parties and orders the court reporter to make the change. Judge McKee told me he was never notified, nor was Perez, something Assistant D.A. Barbara Paul admitted in April 2012, after the D.A.'s office deceptively had made it seem otherwise.

The author of the improper change, Teresinski, has since left the D.A.'s office. Williams denies Teresinski did anything wrong. (Teresinski is the godfather of one of Williams' daughters.)

Is violating procedure serious?

In 2011, after it was learned Common Pleas Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes ordered a change in a transcript on her own authority, the state supreme court rebuked her and removed her from the case.

Justice Max Baer wrote that altering an "official transcript, the only vehicle through which appellate courts can ensure the due process of law, is reprehensible and should be condemned universally." The high court's decision was correct.

In the first case, the courts made a mistake in applying the law. In the second case, Judge Hughes acted improperly.

The Supreme Court set each right.

Perez's case has both - a court error, admitted to by McKee, who since has been elevated to chief judge of the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals - and the improper transcript change made by Teresinski.

Neither I nor Perez - despite the D.A.'s false past statements to the contrary - expect the court to spring him. All Perez wants - and deserves - is the 17 1/2 to 35-year sentence the judge told him to expect. Yes, that would make him eligible for parole, but the Quaker State's tough-minded parole board doesn't play patty-cake. A model prisoner, Perez knows he won't be free anytime soon.

For us to believe in justice, it must be fair, accurate and honest. Not having fair courts affects us all, undermining trust in the system.

The state Supreme Court can set this right, as it has other mistakes and transgressions.

It really should.


Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/BykoColumns: ph.ly/StuBykofsky

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