On his first day of freedom, Thursday, June 17, Marcus Perz stayed up until 1 a.m., because he could. In the morning, he awakened at 5 a.m. because of the force of habit. That was just before the time convicts were awakened in the corrections facilities where he had spent almost 32 of his 50 years.
For 10 of those years I was his advocate. Not because he was wrongly convicted. He was not wrongly convicted, but he was wrongly sentenced.
Whose word did I have for that? The word of Theodore Mckee, then a judge in Common Pleas Court, a man with a sterling reputation for integrity. (He later was elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals.)
Since this is Father’s Day, let me start with Marcus the father, rather than the convict.
To celebrate his long-delayed return to his family, I took them out to celebrate at Appleby’s on the Boulevard (which happened to be my father’s favorite restaurant).
His 78-year-old father, Juan, was there, along with his daughter Shannon, 33, and his super-smart 11-year-old granddaughter Khylei, who held her own in the adult conversation.
Having a meal with family was something he dreamed about for decades in his 6 x 13 cell, while sleeping on a two-inch thick mattress.
Although she was only a toddler when her father was sent to jail, Shannon kept in touch, and visited him. After Khylei was born, she visited her grandfather in what was then Graterford. The Perez family vowed to remain a family even when separated by bars, in the hope someday they wouldn’t be.
While in jail, Marcus was a model inmate, prison officials told me. He earned his GED and took every vocational course offered — from HVAC to cutting hair, from fork lifts to sewing machines. He was a sponge for knowledge and for skills he could use when released.
And he finally was, and now is acquiring the basics of survival on the outside — a cell phone, credit card, bank account, driver’s license.
He is creating this new life in the house his daughter owns, and where Juan, who’s health is fragile, already lives. It is a tight family and Marcus showers affection on them all, fulfilling his dream.
The nightmare began when he was 18, young and stupid by his own admission. He went with a friend to collect a debt and brought a gun. He killed a man, and accepts full responsibility for what he did. In one of our first conversations he told me his parents had raised him better than that, that it was no one’s fault but his own and he was ready to accept the consequences. Always polite and well-spoken, Marcus expressed sincere contrition.
Before his trial, Judge McKee offered him a plea bargain: If he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, he would be sentenced to life, but McKee explained that “life doesn”t mean life, ” that he “would not die in prison,” that “life” was understood to mean 17 1/2 to 35 years.
The judge made a terrible mistake. Pennsylvania had recently rewritten the law, and life meant life.
That had gotten by the judge, and neither Marcus’ attorney nor the district attorney corrected him.
Had Marcus known that, he would have gone to trial and taken his chances before a jury.
By the time McKee realized what had happened, more than 30 days had passed and he was powerless to sentence Marcus to the 17 1/2 to 35 years he had promised him.
To his everlasting credit, McKee told me this on the record, knowing it subjected him to the embarrassment of admitting to a mistake. Many judges think of themselves as infallible. McKee is not one of them.
When a mistake is made in the justice system, there is a route to correcting it — the Post-Conviction Relief Act, known as PCRA.
Over the years, Marcus’ pro bono attorneys — Marc Bookman, executive director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation; Shawn Nolan and Joanne Heisey, of the Federal Community Defenders Office for Eastern District of Pennsylvania, — filed many a PCRA.
The problem with the system is this: Judges tend to ignore PCRAs if they are not approved by the D.A.
Marcus was convicted when my friend Lynne Abraham was D.A., but she turned away when I asked her to take a look at the case. Current D.A. — when I started writing — was Seth Williams, with whom I was friendly. I admired his back story, that he achieved so much on his own, becoming our city’s first African-American D.A.
When I tried to recruit him to join me on the side of justice, he not only refused, but called my reporting on the case a bunch of lies. Along the way, I had reported that Williams got one of his cronies to illegally change the trial transcript without getting the approval of the trial judge.
My reporting was all true — and Williams later proved his own corruption as a grifter, and went to jail.
While I opposed Larry Krasner for D.A., I felt there might be one good outcome for Marcus. His office took a look at the case, including my columns, and decided to not oppose — in fact, to endorse — Marcus’ next PCRA, which resulted in him being sentenced to the 17 1/2 to 35 years he was promised by McKee.
Marcus told me all along he would take the 35, if he had to, just so he could someday be free, to support the family he was away from for so long.
On Thursday, that day came.