A Pennsylvania Inmate Dies of COVID-19 While Awaiting Mercy from the Governor

The Board of Pardons recommended Bruce Norris’ release. A signature didn’t come in time.


Bruce Norris, who was serving life in a Pennsylvania state prison for his role in a 1975 robbery and murder, died of COVID-19 on Saturday at age 69.

Norris is one of more than 2,300 prisoners across the United States who have died of coronavirus-related illnesses behind bars. What makes Norris' case stand out was that Pennsylvania's Board of Pardons had recommended his sentence be commuted by the governor back in early December. But Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf had not acted on the recommendation. While Norris was awaiting Wolf's mercy, he was infected by his cellmate and died.

Norris, who had expressed regret for his crime, earned a bachelor's degree behind bars. He had been in jail for 45 years.

Wolf's office blamed the process for the governor's failure to act. A spokesperson sent a statement to the Philadelphia Inquirer: "The recommendations are processed by Board staff and then through a thorough legal review before heading to the governor's desk for consideration. Upon receipt of the written recommendations the governor will review each case individually and weigh his decision after factoring in the effect a pardon will have on any victims and the likelihood of the person to re-offend." The spokesperson also complained that while the board had increased the number of applications it was sending through, the governor's office didn't have enough staff to process the applications faster.

That's not the only barrier that keeps inmates in Pennsylvania stuck in jail during a pandemic. The state does not have a law that allows for parole for medical reasons unless a prisoner is dying. A year ago, before COVID-19 actually began its spread, State Corrections Secretary John Wetzel called on lawmakers to consider changes to allow for easier release of elderly and chronically sick inmates if they don't have histories of violence. Wetzel pointed out that the state could save $22 million a year on medical costs if it had a parole system for older or sick inmates.

For Norris, Wolf's signature was the only way out, and he didn't get it in time.

Celeste Trusty, the Pennsylvania State Policy Director for the sentencing reform organization FAMM, sent a letter to Wolf's office urging him to quickly sign the remaining commutation requests the Board of Pardons has sent to him:

As governor, you have the critical tools of reprieve and clemency at your disposal. Utilizing these tools in targeted and innovative ways has the potential to immediately save countless lives and diminish unimaginable suffering for Pennsylvania families.

Wolf announced his 2021 agenda on Friday. His criminal justice proposals include bail and probation reforms that could reduce jail populations. If he's serious, he needs to set aside some time to deal with those commutations too.

NEXT: Biden Tells Federal Bureaucrats To Approve Regulations With Benefits That Are 'Impossible To Quantify'

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Is there any evidence he wasn’t guilty of the crime he was originally incarcerated for? If not, I fail to see he was owed a commutation, regardless of who recommended it. Let alone a speedy one.

    1. Change Your Life Right Now! Work From Comfort Of Your Home And Receive Your First Paycheck Within A Week. No Experience Needed, No Boss Over Your Shoulder… Say Goodbye To Your Old Job! Limited Number Of Spots Open… Find out how HERE……>>>>>>>USA ONLINE JOBS <<<<<<<<<

      1. Making money online more than 15$ just by doing simple work from home. I have received $18376 last month. Its an easy and simple job to do and its earnings are much better than MDR regular office job and even a little child can do this and earns money. Everybody must try this job by just use the info
        on this page……..MORE READ

        1. During his first week in office, Biden also abolished a Trump-era rule that imposed some measure of accountability EGul on the federal bureaucracy.……..MORE READ

          1. The Constitutionality of Trump’s Impeachment Trial Is’ Clear.The Constitution says “the President , Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be QXgyremoved from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors..…..MORE READ

  2. Relying on the mercy of strangers has been no way to go through life since 1947.

    1. It fits, given this magazine doesn’t tell truths, but instead tells what ought to be true.

      1. Google pays for every Person every hour online working from home job. I have received $23K in this month easily and I earns every weeks $5K to 8$K on the internet. pay Every Person join this and working easily by open just open this website and follow instructions
        COPY This Website OPEN HERE….. Visit Here

  3. What is the point of this article?

    1. Even though he was a convicted murderer, the libertarian position is that some people deserve to go free after being “rehabilitated”.

  4. I once quickly skimmed the Pennsylvania Constitution, and it seems the governor needs the approval of the pardon board to grant pardons or commutations. However, he can grant *reprieves* without anyone else’s approval.

    Reprieves postpone the carrying out of a sentence, and they’re generally associated with death sentences. But perhaps the governor could reprieve a prisoner pending a final decision one way or the other. This could be abused, of course, I’m just throwing it out there for some Philadelphia lawyer to explain if the idea is of any value.

    As for a description of the crime, I found this brief note: “Norris…was convicted of playing a role in a 1975 murder that occurred during a robbery of a speakeasy in Philadelphia.”

    This is the most detail I’ve been able to find with a quick search.

    1. The articles I found with that quick search have on thing in common – no indication they even tried to talk to the victim’s family.

      I guess this is the modern journalism era, when even trying to get a quote from someone who would mess with the narrative interferes with “moral clarity.”

  5. “A Pennsylvania Inmate Dies of COVID-19 While Awaiting Mercy from the Governor”

    Up to 10,000 Pennsylvanians died of covid due to orders by Governor Wolf and former PA Sec Rachel (formerly Richard) Levine forcing nursing homes to accept covid patients from hospitals.
    But Levine rescued his/her mother by removing her from a nursing home.

    Gov Wolf has also screwed up PA’s vaccine distribution, as smokers, nonsmokers who claim to be smokers, obese people, and people who are already immune from covid have all been given priority to get vaccines, while high risk senior citizens without computers must wait at the end of the line.

    1. Gov Wolf’s lockdowns also destroyed tens of thousands of businesses (most of which were owned by Republicans), sharply increased unemployment, and has prevented PA’s children from attending school.

      But Reason is more interested in getting violent convicts out of prison.

      1. And of course, Wolf implemented the Democrat’s strategy and tactics to rig the 2020 PA election by encouraging voter fraud via mail in ballots (to prevent Trump from winning in November).

        But Reason is more concerned about protecting violent convicts.

        1. ^ all this

        2. I was on-board with you until the mail-in ballot comment. Wolf’s involvement was pretty limited to his gubernatorial function of praising and signing a bill (Act 77 of 2019) that passed the PA Legislature with bi-partisan support, and overwhelming Republican support, that purportedly established mail-in ballots.

          Of all the actors in passing and implementing the sham that is Act 77’s mail-in balloting travesty, I think the Gov had the smallest of speaking parts. The blame for mail-in ballots goes to clueless Republican Legislators and the collection of oxygen-stealing apparatchiks known as the PA Supreme Court.

  6. Looks like Kamala Harris screwed up her attempt to pressure Joe Manchin to change his mind about the filibuster.

    1. Did she try to suck him off yet? That always worked in the past to benefit Kamala politically.

    2. In the interview, Harris was asked about the state’s coal industry. She reassured West Virginia coal miners that even if their jobs disappear under the Biden administration — and the implication was clear that they would disappear — mine workers could transfer their skills to new industries.

      So the Democrats are still screeching “Learn to code”? Wasn’t that banned on Twitter?

  7. This is really weird article from a libertarian perspective. Especially how you tout him earning a degree. I’m sure he paid for his college, right? Oh wait, I’m sure the government did in some form or the other.

    But beyond that, he was involved in a murder.

    1. From the limited description, it sounds like a robbery “gone wrong” (that is, the robbers threatened deadly force in order to get what they wanted, and someone actually ended up using deadly force, who would have thought?).

      1. Norris was convicted of second degree murder, which in PA means a non-premeditated murder that happens while the criminal is committing a felony.

        This could be one of those cases like you see on TV shows where the guy that is driving the getaway car for the bank robbers would be guilty of 2nd degree murder if one of the bank robbers in the bank killed somebody, even though he was outside in the car with the engine running.

        1. You’ve got to dig, which I strongly doubt Shackford did, but the appellate history of his co-defendant, Tyrone Werts, has a statement of facts that discusses the robbery. Werts v. Vaughn, 228 F.3d 178 (3rd Cir. 2000).

          From it:

          Atlee Moore, a co-defendant, testified that on the date of the crime, he was home drinking when his friend, William Jones, stopped by and suggested they rob someone or some place.   Moore suggested they rob a speakeasy, Shirley’s, located on West Arizona Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.   Jones agreed and the two men then joined forces with the other co-defendants, Levan Spann, Bruce Norris, and Werts.   The five co-defendants drove off in Spann’s car towards Shirley’s, with Spann at the wheel and Werts seated in the front passenger seat.   Jones, Moore and Norris were positioned in the back seat of Spann’s car.   It was agreed that Spann and Norris would commit the robbery since both Moore and Jones were known and could subsequently be identified by the patrons at Shirley’s.

          Spann and Norris exited the vehicle and retrieved a shotgun and a pistol from the trunk of Spann’s car which they hid in their clothing.   They then proceeded into Shirley’s.   While Spann and Norris entered the speakeasy, Jones stood on the steps outside and Moore walked to a nearby alley.   Werts remained seated in the front passenger seat of the car.   Suddenly, a shot rang out and shortly thereafter, Spann and Norris swiftly exited the speakeasy.   Quick on their heels, Moore and Jones followed Spann and Morris back to the car.   Moore asked Spann and Norris what happened and Spann replied that Norris had shot someone.   In fact, William Bridgeman had been shot and killed during the robbery which yielded a total sum of $35.

          Spann dropped off the co-defendants one-by-one after their quick get-away from Shirley’s.   The next day, Moore turned himself in to the police upon learning that the police were looking for him in connection with the robbery and murder at Shirley’s.   Moore negotiated a deal with the prosecutor-he agreed to testify against Werts and the other co-defendants.

          2nd degree murder was a gift, given those facts.

          1. Albeit proving premeditation would have been tough, and the judge ended up sentencing Norris consecutively for the murder, the robbery, possessing the weapon, so ‘life’ was a possibility whether 1st or 2nd degree was the case they could convict on.

            “Involved in a murder…” Yeah, just a tad.

          2. Assuming the above account is true, then I would have a hard time with a commutation. Do the crime, do the time.

            There are probably 100 people more deserving than this guy.

  8. “But Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf had not acted on the recommendation. While Norris was awaiting Wolf’s mercy, he was infected by his cellmate and died.”

    So, are we charging the cellmate with murder the same way we would if Norris was infected by a random white supremacist insurrectionist out in the wilds of Pennsylvania?

    What is the point of this article?

  9. Democrats care about Black people as an idea, but black people as individuals, not so much.

    1. “Black people as an idea” yield Democrats between 90-95% of the black vote regularly, without any effort. With margins like that, they have no need to be concerned with individuals.

  10. I have a sneaking suspicion that politicians waiting for sick old men to die in order to duck responsibility is not a new thing.

    1. you don’t have to be old its something Ted Kennedy started when the car hit the water.

  11. A Pennsylvania Inmate Dies of COVID-19 While Awaiting Mercy from the Governor

    So, problem solved?

  12. If he had contracted COVID post-release and died, would that have been an argument against releasing him?

  13. It is always a sad event when someone dies and it is especially hard on the grieving family who ask why did it have to happen in such a callous and needless action of being shot for 35.00.

  14. Project Warped Speed

  15. Premise of the article is that no one ever deserves to die in prison, no matter what they did. I think that premise needs justification; I certain believe some crimes like murder warrant the death penalty.

  16. He got more mercy than his victim.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.