August 4, 2022

John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor and the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, has advocated for ending mandatory life sentences for what is known as felony murder. But he has not called for eliminating life sentences for all murders, despite a claim in a TV ad by physician and former TV talk show host Mehmet Oz, the Republican Senate nominee.

“Failed liberal policies are making us less safe,” the narrator says in the ad, which was paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and approved by Oz. “Yet John Fetterman wants to release one-third of prisoners and eliminate life sentences for murderers.”

PolitiFact rated Oz’s claim about releasing one-third of prisoners Mostly False. Fetterman has not called for that; he did highlight what he said was a comment by Pennsylvania’s former corrections secretary that the state’s prison population could be reduced by one-third without a risk to public safety.

Oz’s new claim about Fetterman wanting to “eliminate” life sentences for murders is similarly distorted.

The Nov. 8 matchup between Oz and Fetterman is rated by campaign watchers as “tilts Republican” and a toss-up. The outcome could decide which party controls the Senate, which is split 50-50.

Fetterman’s focus on second-degree murder

A national report highlighted Pennsylvania as one of nine states that mandate life-without-parole sentences for what is known as felony murder.

Felony murder is holding a person liable for murder if the person participated in a felony that resulted in someone’s death. For example, if two people participated in a robbery in which a person was shot and killed, the person who did not do the shooting could be convicted of felony murder.

The March report from The Sentencing Project, a group that advocates against extreme punishments, found that more than 1,100 people in Pennsylvania were serving life-without-parole sentences for felony murder, which is classified as second-degree murder in the state.

In making the claim about life sentences, the Oz ad refers to a June 1, 2021, article in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, which describes itself as a news source on state government that also offers progressive commentary. The article notes Fetterman’s position in favor of eliminating life sentences for second-degree murder and quotes him at a town hall with reform advocates saying: “These folks are not Hannibal Lecter. These are individuals that may have been involved in a bad decision, terrible mistake, or something that they had no idea was going to occur.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee did not offer more information to back the ad’s claim.

Fetterman repeatedly said in 2021 that the Pennsylvania law should be changed. He wrote about commissioning a report he said “clearly spelled out the need to abolish Pennsylvania’s horrible and immoral practice” of mandatory life sentences for  second-degree murder.

The law “ruins lives that could be rehabilitated while costing taxpayers billions and leaving them no safer as a result,” he said when the report was released.

The report said that, as of Sept. 30, 2019, 1,166 people were in Pennsylvania prisons serving life-without-parole sentences for second-degree, or felony, murder. The accomplice in such cases “could have stood outside a convenience store as the lookout to a robbery that escalated into a death, driven the ‘get-away’ car, or helped to plan the felony with no idea that a gun or other weapon would be involved,” the report said.

Fetterman’s campaign noted that a March 2020 York Daily Record news article paraphrased Fetterman as saying there are people who should die in prison because they’ve committed heinous crimes. He was quoted in that article saying, “Justice isn’t giving somebody the equivalent sentence who was sitting outside in a getaway car to the individual that made the decision to shoot an innocent person.”

The campaign also cited Fetterman’s votes on Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons, which he chairs, to deny clemency to people who sought a commutation of their life sentences.

Our ruling

Oz said in an ad that Fetterman wants to “eliminate life sentences for murderers.”

Fetterman has not called for eliminating life sentences for murder.

He has called for reversing Pennsylvania’s law that mandates life-without-parole sentences for second-degree murder, or so-called felony murder, for defendants who are accessories in a killing. In those cases, the defendants are involved in felony crimes, such as robbery, that result in a death, but they were not directly responsible for the killing.

Oz’s claim contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.

RELATED: Fact-checking ads in the 2022 election campaigns

RELATED: PolitiFact’s Pennsylvania fact-checks

This article was originally published by PolitiFact, which is part of the Poynter Institute. It is republished here with permission. See the sources for these fact checks here and more of their fact checks here.

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Tom Kertscher is a contributing writer for PolitiFact. Previously, he was a fact-checker for PolitiFact Wisconsin.
Tom Kertscher

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