When Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman took up the cause of Dennis and Lee Horton, long-incarcerated brothers serving life sentences for second-degree murder, he vowed to strenuously advocate for their release, even if it ended his political career.
“Even if he lost the next election and every election after that,” Lee Horton, 56, recalled the Democrat telling his sister.
“He was going to fight until he got us home,” Horton told NBC News in a telephone interview.
The Horton brothers, who maintain their innocence in a deadly 1993 armed robbery, left prison last year, their sentences commuted by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf after a recommendation by the state Board of Pardons that Fetterman chairs. And true to Fetterman’s foreshadowing, Republicans are now emphasizing the case as he runs for Senate in one of the year’s most hostile races.
Fetterman’s GOP opponent in November, celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, casts him as soft on crime, pointing to how he has championed clemency for the Hortons and others convicted of similar felonies. Pardons and commutations have soared since Fetterman took office in 2019, consistent with his progressive philosophy on criminal justice reform.
But the campaign attacks have omitted both context — such as recommendations of leniency from judges, prosecutors and prison officials — and the nuances of a state law that requires life sentences for second-degree murder. For example, the getaway driver in a fatal shooting can be punished just as severely as the person who pulled the trigger.
Oz and the outside groups supporting him have spent millions of dollars to hammer home the issue. Since Aug. 1, Republicans have outspent Democrats $24.5 million to $21.9 million on advertising in the Senate race, according to the ad-tracking firm AdImpact. Many of the ads from the Oz campaign, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the GOP-aligned Senate Leadership Fund super PAC have focused on crime.
“We all know Fetterman loves free stuff,” a narrator says at the end of one recent 30-second digital ad from Oz’s campaign. “But we can’t let him free murderers.”
The attacks also include near-daily email blasts to reporters and an “Inmates for Fetterman” website, paid for by Oz’s campaign, featuring mugshots of those whose commutations Fetterman has supported, including the Hortons.
Oz has even called on Fetterman to fire the two brothers, who now work for his campaign as field organizers. The Hortons were involved in mentoring and anti-violence programs while in prison, where their clemency case received support not only from Fetterman but also prison administrators familiar with their character.
Several questions remain unanswered about the investigation that led to the Hortons’ convictions. The brothers have said they were pulled over by police in Philadelphia after offering a ride to a friend, not knowing he was fleeing the scene of a crime. Witnesses had identified them as assailants, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, but police files turned over decades later identified another man as the shooter.
“John believes there are people who deserve to spend the rest of their life behind bars in prison, but he also supports common sense bipartisan policies to free the wrongly convicted and provide second chances for deserving and nonviolent offenders,” Joe Calvello, a spokesperson for Fetterman, said. “John’s work on the Board of Pardons was widely praised, including by elected Republican officials. All Dr. Oz and his team are engaging in is gross fear mongering.”
Oz’s focus on crime and clemency has also angered advocates for criminal justice reform.
“What I don’t love — what frustrates me about what I’m seeing — is funny memes about felons for this person or that person,” said Holly Harris, a former Kentucky Republican Party official who leads the Justice Action Network, a national bipartisan organization. “I don’t like seeing cruelty. Cartoonish memes really devalue the hard work of so many people that we know.”
The race between Fetterman and Oz to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is one of the most competitive in the nation this fall and could determine control of the evenly split Senate. Recent polls have shown Fetterman’s once-wide lead is now shrinking.
Several Republican strategists who spoke to NBC News attributed the narrowing margin to Oz’s focus on crime — and not his campaign’s relentless attacks on Fetterman’s reluctance to debate as he recovers from a stroke. When asked this week about Fetterman’s health, Sen. Rick Scott, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the Democrat has to “come clean” on both his condition and what Scott called “his radical policies” on crime.
Oz spokesperson Barney Keller said the nuance surrounding the clemency cases does not undercut the campaign’s core argument that Fetterman is out of step with voters on crime, an argument many Republican candidates are making against Democratic opponents heading into November.
“Dr. Oz is surging in the polls because the more people learn that John Fetterman is the most pro-murderer candidate in the entire country, the more people recognize that Dr. Oz will better represent Pennsylvania and its values than John Fetterman ever will,” Keller said.
The Oz campaign’s messaging has put Fetterman on the defensive. He has responded with his own ads.
“Doc Oz in his Gucci loafers is attacking me on crime,” Fetterman says in one TV spot that details his earlier work as mayor of Braddock, a town near Pittsburgh. “Public safety is why I ran for office.”
Fetterman has also said that the opportunity to oversee the Board of Pardons is one reason why he ran for lieutenant governor. Under state law, the lieutenant governor chairs the pardons board.
Clemency had largely fallen out of favor in Pennsylvania, especially in murder cases after a convicted murderer released from a life sentence in 1994 went on to kill a woman and commit other violent crimes in New York. State law was later changed to require unanimous Board of Pardons approval to recommend commutations for those serving life sentences.
Criminal justice experts have long cited Pennsylvania’s mandatory life sentence for second-degree murder as excessive. Shawn Bushway, a senior policy researcher for the nonprofit Rand Corp., said that the punishment is often disproportionate, does little to deter crime and keeps behind bars people who are unlikely to reoffend if released.
“It’s not ultimately a victim’s decision, it’s a society’s decision,” said Bushway, who is also a professor of public administration and policy at the State University of New York at Albany. “It does seem reasonable that you should consider the costs and benefits on both sides. And I don’t think there are a lot of benefits here for those kinds of extra-long sentences.”
Between 1995 and 2014, a mix of Democratic and Republican governors commuted only six life sentences in Pennsylvania, according to state records. Wolf, who took office in 2015, commuted five in his first term as governor, but clemency has risen sharply since Fetterman became lieutenant governor in 2019. In his second term, Wolf has already commuted 47 life sentences, at the urging of the pardons board.
“John took a fair-minded approach to clemency cases, voting to give second chances to the wrongfully convicted and deserving elder inmates, but also voting to deny hundreds of applications where he felt clemency wasn’t merited,” said Calvello, the Fetterman spokesperson. “In making clemency decisions, John scrupulously reviewed clemency applications and consulted with corrections officials, prison wardens, judges and DAs. One question John would always ask was, ‘Would you want this person as your neighbor?’”
In search of political liabilities, Oz and his Republican allies have mined Fetterman’s comments about clemency and the cases he has championed. Independent fact-checkers have rapped them for broad brush attacks. Fetterman has not, as one Oz ad implies, called for eliminating all life sentences for murderers. Rather, he has said he favors ending the mandatory life sentence for second-degree murder.
Oz has also hammered Fetterman for agreeing with a state corrections official’s assessment that one-third of Pennsylvania’s prison population could be released without posing a threat to public safety. The attacks parse words and imply that Fetterman has directly fought for such a measure, but he has not, Calvello said.
Oz’s emphasis on the Horton brothers and five others highlighted on the Inmates for Fetterman website leaves out certain details as well. All but one of the men featured had been serving life sentences on second-degree murder convictions, with a variety of mitigating circumstances in their favor. All had served at least a quarter-century behind bars. In one case, the district attorney asked in a sentencing exhibit that “serious consideration” be given to any clemency request. In another case, the prosecuting attorney — by that point a judge — spoke at the clemency hearing on the inmate’s behalf. And under state law, none would have been released had the pardons board and the governor not been in agreement.
One of the men whose mugshot appears on the site — the only one convicted of first-degree murder — remains incarcerated after Fetterman was the only person on the five-member pardons board to cast a vote in favor of clemency. Wayne Covington, imprisoned since 1970, has been deemed a “minimal risk” to public safety by prison officials as far back as 1991, according to published reports. Covington also made headlines in 1994 after discovering fossilized dinosaur footprints while working on prison grounds. He donated many of the tracks to museums and schools.
Unlike others who had their sentences commuted after admitting to the crime and expressing remorse, the Hortons have maintained their innocence.
The pardons board denied clemency at a December 2019 hearing, but Fetterman continued to push for the Hortons, believing they had been wrongly convicted. The board returned a year later with a unanimous decision in favor of commutation.
Dennis Horton, who is 52 years old and now goes by the name Freedom, said Fetterman could have given up after the 2019 vote.
“This is what we always got from lawyers, from the courts and so on and so forth,” Horton said. “But not from John Fetterman.”