36 Years in Prison, Tyrone Werts Now Has Sprung Fever

By F.H Rubino
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 18 | Posted Jun. 8, 2011

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Free and clear: Tyrone Werts is making the most of his second chance after Ed Rendell commuted his life sentence.

About a month ago, weeks since leaving Graterford prison after serving 36 years of a life sentence for murder, Tyrone Werts showed up late for the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. He’d been delayed by a visit to a tailor, where he had two pairs of pants altered. “I was kidding him about being late,” recalls Prison Society Executive Director William DiMascio, “and he kept saying he couldn’t believe the tailor charged him 26 bucks.” Werts chuckles at the memory from behind his desk inside Temple University’s Inside-Out Center at Broad Street and Montgomery Avenue. “It’s true,” says Werts, who was arrested June 8, 1975. “Some of the prices out here are shocking me.”

The cream-colored slacks Werts wears on this warm May morning fit him perfectly, as do his shirt and sport coat. The gray in his hair and moustache lend him a professorial air, and his copper complexion is vibrant. Presentation matters when you’re representing. “I try to carry myself in a certain way,” the 59-year-old North Philly native says, “so people know that lifers look like me, not scary monsters. Most lifers are basically good people who did a bad thing when they were young and caught up. And like I did, a lot of them have transformed their lives.”

Last Dec. 30, when then-Gov. Rendell commuted Werts’ life sentence and those of William Fultz, 59, and Keith Smith, 56, the trio joined an elite club comprised of Pennsylvania’s luckiest lifers—those granted a second chance in a state where life nearly always means life. On March 14, the three men were transported to a halfway house near Eighth and Callowhill streets, where they’re rooming together. They have a 9:30 p.m. curfew, aren’t allowed to drive or possess cell phones, have to call in from a landline several times daily, and are regularly subjected to drug tests and breathalyzers. Any major slip-up could get them sent back. Conversely, if they get through a year at the halfway house, they’ll be permitted to live independently, although they’ll remain on parole for life. “I don’t have any complaints,” says Werts, adding that Fultz and Smith are both faring well, too. “Things are wonderful.”

He relates another anecdote, about an afternoon when he got caught in a rain squall while waiting to meet a friend for lunch. When the friend finally showed, she expressed surprise that Werts, who lacked an umbrella, hadn’t sought cover. “I told her, ‘The rain doesn’t bother me. I could be getting rained on at Graterford.’”

Almost immediately upon his release, Werts began doing consulting work for Inside-Out, a nationally renowned program that takes college students inside prisons to examine crime and justice issues alongside inmates. The Defender Association of Philadelphia also hired him as a consultant virtually the moment he got out. So he’s continuing the zippy pace he kept during his three-and-a-half decades in prison. There, he earned a bachelor’s degree, served as a literacy tutor and a slew of other constructive programs, and even organized a 2003 Graterford anti-crime summit attended by then-Philadelphia Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson and other law-enforcement honchos. But Werts, the face of a half-dozen PW stories over the past seven years exploring Pennsylvania’s life-means-life statute and the state’s declining number of lifer commutations, says he’ll never be so busy that he forgets those he left behind. “My leaving was really bittersweet,” he says. “Of course I’m not saying I didn’t want to come home, but I was walking down the hallway crying like a baby because so many guys were coming up hugging me, and I’m saying, ‘I’m going home, we grew up together here, 34, 35 years, and I’m getting out.’ They’re not getting out. Not everybody who deserves this opportunity gets it.”

Werts had reasons to doubt the criminal justice system’s angels would ever smile on him. The conviction that earned him his life sentence stemmed from his role in a 1975 Arizona Street speakeasy robbery during which one of his four accomplices shot and killed a young man named William Bridgeman. Although he never entered the speakeasy, a jury convicted Werts of second-degree murder months after he spurned a prosecutor’s plea offer of an eight-to-20-year sentence. (In Pennsylvania, anyone convicted of either first- or second-degree murder receives a compulsory life-without-parole sentence with the exception of those sentenced to death in capital prosecutions).

Although he was bitter when he landed at Graterford on June 16, 1976, Werts gradually underwent a catharsis, ultimately accepting his role in Bridgeman’s murder. “I was involved,” he told PW seven years ago. “I can’t disassociate myself from what happened that night. I’m not innocent. I’m guilty.” Still, he hoped he might someday leave prison, and filed for commutation in April 2004. The five-member state pardons board twice listed Werts’ case on its docket, but both times opted not to vote on it even after transporting Werts to Harrisburg and interviewing him as to why he felt deserving. But last Dec. , in Rendell’s final days as governor, the board again called Werts’ case up along with Fultz’s and Smith’s. The board voted 4-0 (Gov.-elect Tom Corbett, who was still attorney general, abstained) in favor of each request, and forwarded them to Rendell. Three weeks later, Rendell gave his thumbs-up. “To be honest, I never thought I’d receive a commutation,” Werts confides. “It’s such a long shot. Then it seemed like all of a sudden I was walking down the street in Philadelphia, saying, ‘Wow, what a miracle!”

Werts’ supporters share his delight. “It’s a thrill for all of us to work with him, because he’s really brilliant,” says Lori Pompa, who directs Inside-Out and has known Werts for 25 years. “Already, in just two months, he’s had a tremendous impact on our program.”

Steven Blackburn, a commuted lifer (who for the past 12 years has been director of the Frankford Neighborhood Center), who served 13 years alongside Werts adds: “You get to see how people are in a place like (Graterford), how they hold up under pressure. You see everybody’s flaws as well as their strengths. Tyrone always impressed me as being a very strong man with tremendous integrity. I know he’s going to do well.”

DiMascio says, “Tyrone came out of prison and started working almost the very day he arrived here in the city. He can be productive, and I believe he will be productive.”

Understandably, not everyone cheers when a prisoner convicted of murder gets sprung. Carol Lavery, Pennsylvania’s Victim Advocate, appeared at Werts’ September 2009 commutation hearing and spoke solemnly to the value of Bridgeman’s life. Lavery, however, declines to take a stance on Werts’ liberation, adding that some homicide victims’ family members favor commutations while others think anyone sentenced to life ought to serve it. “These are tough things,” she says. “The answers aren’t come by easily.” Some commutation opponents point out that months after Gov. Robert Casey commuted convicted murderer Reginald McFadden’s life sentence in 1994, McFadden thanked him by committing two murders and a rape in New York.

Werts argues the McFadden case was an aberration. “If you asked any prisoner who knew McFadden,” he says, “they would have voted against him. Most guys knew he had psychological problems. His case was a mistake, not at all representative.”

Werts, who looks forward to renting an apartment after he leaves the halfway house, is naturally more interested in living than in defending his release. He’s already reconnected with his 21-year-old granddaughter, Shadera, and says his 39-year-old daughter Shanita, who lives in Atlanta, is flying up this month. And he regularly visits with his younger brother Paul, who stood by his side throughout his incarceration. “Tyrone was at my home just the other day,” Paul Werts, pastor of First Timothy Baptist Church at 39th and Girard Avenue, told PW a few weeks back. “And I was looking at him sitting in my living room and it didn’t seem real after 36 years. It just didn’t seem like it could be true.”

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 18 of 18
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1. Anonymous said... on Jun 8, 2011 at 08:56AM

“Do you have a photo of the REAL Tyrone Werts? This must be his sister...”

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2. Tyrone Werts said... on Jun 8, 2011 at 09:11AM

“That is not my photo...the article is good!”

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3. Philadelphia Weekly said... on Jun 8, 2011 at 10:22AM

“Thanks! It's fixed!”

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4. Shanita Werts said... on Jun 9, 2011 at 01:28PM

“Nice article Mr. Rubino I always like how you portray my dad in your articles .”

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5. Wanda said... on Jun 10, 2011 at 07:40AM

“God is Sovereign! There is a Divine reason for the release of Mr. Werts and I hope to see what's in store for other prisoners who deserve a second chance. We're all human and we all make mistakes; if God can forgive us then why can't man?”

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6. Kristi Brian said... on Jun 13, 2011 at 08:18PM

“Welcome home, Tyrone! So glad to hear you are doing well. Enjoy yourself. You deserve all the best. Thanks for writing the story, Frank. I hope you keep writing about other PA prisoners who ought to have a chance to be out here with us.”

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7. Anonymous said... on Jun 13, 2011 at 08:31PM

“Great article - I appreciate you!”

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8. Anonymous said... on Sep 27, 2011 at 02:53PM

“I'm very happy for you sir. You give me faith that my brother -in-law may one day be free. He is now serving life without the possible of parole in Waynesburg, Pa. He has been incarcerated for 31 years. We're looking into the post conviction relief act. If you have any .suggestions please sir, share them with me. Thank you in advance”

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9. Kanneshi Burdett said... on Mar 10, 2012 at 07:20AM

“Congratulations to the Werts Family....Shanita and Shadera I am happy for the both of you....I would love to meet your father one day.....You have always Loved and Spoke highly of him......Welcome Home Mr. Werts....and God he's handsome...”

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10. carol said... on Apr 5, 2012 at 01:20PM

“you have made it through at lot and you are very blessed and may you continue in life and continue making a wonderful change in others”

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11. Marge Mercer said... on Jul 15, 2012 at 04:30AM

“I was there when he got arrested at his home on the 8600 Block for Forrest Avenue.

It's funny how things turn out. You have been on my mind for weeks, and I was wondering how you were doing and now to read that you are a free man. God is Good!!!

"Great Article" --Welcome Home Tyrone!!!! I hope to see you, and Shanita and Shadrera.....”

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12. Anonymous said... on Sep 20, 2012 at 10:05PM

“What a BLESSING! Praise God!!! Congratulations Mr. Werts. I read your piece in Doing Life: Reflections of Men & Women Serving Life Sentences by Howard Zehr. You are a brilliant man. I commend you for your transformation, restoration and new lease on LIFE. …It was all for a purpose.
Signed, A Lifer’s Wife

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13. Layman Franks (ValleyGang)DIRT said... on Jan 11, 2013 at 11:21AM

“GOD is good always. To basically be released from the beast is a feat worthy of teeth to eat the bad with the good in defeat so bleek and far from meek to save the youth and repeat the beat. Now lets stop the violence in the inner city street.”

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14. yasmin barnes said... on Sep 28, 2013 at 06:36PM

“This is a friend of mine and i have been looking for you if you could email i am living back in philly

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15. my name is Brenda Watson said... on Nov 25, 2013 at 08:27AM

“I was at work telling a co worker about my sons whom are in prison,feeling trouble about the situation, my coworker and friend started telling me about Mr. Werts. I always believed that God still put people in our lives who have over come to give us hope. After reading your story hope has been restored in my life. May GOD Bless you and your family. The co-worker is Mr. F.H. Rubino, who did not tell he wrote this article, just told me about you.”

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16. Otissteen Williams said... on Jan 27, 2014 at 02:38PM

“I was in class at CCP and was sharing with a classmate about my brother-in-law who is presently serving a life sentence. He has been incarcerated for 38 years. I know there is a God and when I hear about stories like yours Mr. Werts it's such a blessing. Sir, I am begging you to response to this email if you can to give me any information that will assist me and my brother in trying to get his sentence over turned. Please sir, if you can help we would be forever grateful.Again, I thank God for your freedom and I pray that you continue to be bless in an abundance. God Bless”

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17. Abdul Gaston said... on Apr 8, 2014 at 10:49PM

“Congradulation, I speak of you frequently as some one I admire and respect. If or when you need me I'll be there.”

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18. pablo martinez said... on Aug 8, 2014 at 08:10PM

“Wecome home Tyrone, I knew that one day you would earn your freedom. You did a lot of positive things at graterford, that's why you were highly respected by us the inmates and staff. Good luck on your new journey. God Bless you . Pablo ringo martinez”

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