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.”