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604: 20 Years Later

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Prologue

Ira Glass

I recorded this conversation with my mom three years before she died. It was for a Mother's Day edition of our radio show, but only a tiny part of it made it onto the air and I listened to the rest yesterday for the first time since then, 16 years ago. I was relieved to hear how well we were getting along, how comfortable we both were because it wasn't always like that with us. Like for instance, we're talking about mothers and Mother's Day and my mom was a therapist and she started telling me about her patients who were mothers and the problems they had with her own grown children.

Ira Glass's Mother

They thought they'd be really close. They thought they'd be appreciated. They thought they'd be respected and turned to for advice. That's a big one. That's probably one of the great disappointments is that children don't come to you for advice.

Ira Glass

I was glad to hear that we didn't pretend this didn't apply to us. We went for it.

Ira Glass

I think only now would I be able to turn to you for advice.

Ira Glass's Mother

Mm-hm.

Ira Glass

I felt like for so many years, you and dad disapproved so strongly in everything I was doing. It would have been hard.

What I'm not saying, but she and I both know, is that there were years, like most of my 20s, where she and I barely talked. I didn't want to be in touch with her and my dad. I felt no connection to them for reasons I don't want to go into right now and I am not proud of. I held myself apart.

Ira Glass's Mother

So if you were to come to me for advice, what kind of advice would you come to me for?

Ira Glass

I don't know.

Ira Glass's Mother

Suppose you were having a problem with your girlfriend.

Ira Glass

Well, I mean, I think with a girlfriend, I think I would be defensive that you just think, eh, just another relationship I'm messing up, you know?

Ira Glass's Mother

So you have a need for me to see you as OK.

Ira Glass

Yes, but I would argue that you also have a need for me to show you that things are OK.

Ira Glass's Mother

Mm-hm. That's true.

Ira Glass

Look at us listening to each other, better than I remembered. But there were awkward moments, too, on this recording. I winced hearing myself explain to my mom that we had done three Father's Day shows, but not one Mother's Day show, because I told her people's relationships with their moms are just so much more complicated than their relationships with their dads, as if that was some like universal truth and not just like me and her. And then there's this one question that really makes my mom pause, I mean like literally pause, for 15 seconds. The question is along the lines of have you ever met somebody who actually gets along with her mom? And I'm sure it didn't occur to me that the premise of that question might hurt her feelings, but of course, now I hear all that, like in that pause. OK. Here it is.

Ira Glass

Mom, can I ask you to just think for a second about your various clients. How common is it that people have relationships with their mothers where things are going OK? And how common is it troubled?

Ira Glass's Mother

I would say the majority of people that I see in therapy are ambivalent about their relationships with both parents.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Ira Glass's Mother

Not one more than the other.

Ira Glass

Right.

The question made her feel bad, but I didn't understand that back then. And I spent the last day just feeling this regret and affection for her, which, I guess, is what I was hoping for when I listened yesterday that I would learn something, I would see something I hadn't seen before, that I would have some thought I didn't have back then. Today on our radio show, we have the story of somebody who yearned for that. She went back to a moment from the past, something with her mom from 20 years before hoping to see something new. Though as you'll hear, it's a totally different kind of moment she's returning to, this big difficult event that happened to them and changed their lives forever-- very different from me and my mom. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Act One: Act One

Ira Glass

The story that we're playing you today just won this huge radio award. It's one of the best things produced for radio this year anywhere in the world and we are proud to be the first ones to give it a national broadcast. It was created by the Public Radio website transom.org by Samantha Broun and Jay Allison. It is Samantha's story. A warning before we start that. Part of the story has descriptions of violence, sexual violence. Consider this a trigger warning. It's not right for small children. OK. Here's that story. Here's Samantha Broun.

Samantha Broun

There's no way to ease into this story, so I'll just start. In 1994, my mother was the victim of a violent crime. She was 55 years old and living alone in Nyack, New York. On the evening of September 21st, a stranger came into her backyard. The stranger attacked her from behind. Five hours later, he left her lying on her bed, hands and feet bound with tape, alive. She survived.

Whatever horrible thing you imagined happened to her in those five hours, likely did. I still find it hard to believe to accept what she went through. I know that a lot of people have been the victims of crimes. I've had my car stolen, my apartment broken into. I felt violated after those events, but what happened to my mom was unimaginable, undigestable. What happened to her changed our view of the world. When Reginald McFadden was arrested and charged with the crimes against my mom, my feeling shifted from terror to outrage. I wanted someone to take responsibility for what went wrong, which is how I ended up testifying in front of a Senate Judiciary hearing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Samantha Broun

I would like to thank Governor Ridge, Attorney General Preate, Chairman Greenleaf--

That's me in February 1995 in front of a panel of Pennsylvania senators and a roomful of reporters. And I'm pissed.

Samantha Broun

I am here today because last July, Reginald McFadden, a convicted murderer, was released from a Pennsylvania prison.

It turned out that the guy who randomly attacked my mom was a convicted murderer and his life sentence without parole had been commuted. After 24 years, he walked out of prison in Pennsylvania and, within days, moved to Nyack, New York, less than a mile from where my mother lived.

Samantha Broun

On September 21st, while my mother was taking out her garbage, Reginald McFadden--

Man

Just take your time.

Samantha Broun

Reginald McFadden brutally attacked, then beat, robbed, repeatedly raped, and kidnapped my mother during a five hour ordeal.

I couldn't understand how Reginald McFadden had been let out of prison and I wanted to be sure whatever crack he slipped through was sealed shut. And it seemed as if that's exactly what happened. The Pennsylvania State Constitution was changed, commutation for lifers became nearly impossible to get. My testimony helped make that happen. My mom's case was a big deal. McFadden was a big deal. It was one of those crimes that makes people angry and scared, that becomes a symbol for a lot of things. And because it happened during an election, it even had an impact on who became the governor of Pennsylvania.

A few years ago, nearly 20 years after all this happened, my mother moved from her home in New York to one near me on Cape Cod. I thought it would be an easy adjustment for her, less congestion, more ocean, but it wasn't. Every little sound she was convinced was a stranger in her house. She imagined walks in the woods would have some violent end. She lost sleep. She was scared to death. It was the aftershock from her assault, of course, from McFadden.

Seeing my mother struggle rattled me. I was surprised at the intensity of it after all these years. I couldn't stand to see her suffering still. That's when I decided I needed to do something. I started digging around, reaching out to people related to the case. I wasn't sure what I was doing exactly or why. I just wanted to get us un-stuck, maybe move the story forward, rethink it, something.

I've already told you this isn't an easy story to tell. It won't be an easy one to listen to. I suppose I could start with how the system failed or with McFadden's family in Philadelphia. I could start with the thousands of prisoners whose lives were affected by McFadden, or I could tell you about the political careers, both launched and destroyed. But instead, I think I'll save those parts and start where I usually start, which is with my mother.

Samantha Broun

And how are you feeling about today?

Jeremy Brown

Well, I'm curious what you're going to ask me about.

Samantha Broun

Well, I thought today we would talk about September 21st. I have to say, I'm feeling nervous about talking about it, because I don't know that you and I have ever sat across from each other and had this conversation.

Jeremy Brown

I guess, for me, it's easier when I'm talking to strangers or when I'm just talking about how I survived, but when I tell a loved one, it's much deeper, it just goes deeper into what really happened to my spirit, my soul.

Samantha Broun

Are you OK to do this?

Jeremy Brown

I'd like to try. I'd like to try.

Samantha Broun

I'd like to try, too, but I worry about it being hard for you. Like I guess I worry that it will bring it to the surface in a way that maybe it hasn't been or it doesn't have to be or that might be hard for you.

Jeremy Brown

No, I think we need to try this because we've decided to do it and we're not quitters, are we? Let's try it.

Samantha Broun

By the way, my mom is Jeremy Brown. She's in her mid 70s now, but you'd never know it. She looks 15 years younger, she's bright eyed and elegant and full of life. In the fall of 1994, she was living in a little house she had bought after she and my father divorced. I lived there with her for a year or so, working and saving money for graduate school. I moved out at the beginning of September. It was the first time in my mother's adult life that she was living alone.

Jeremy Brown

I was never afraid of anybody. I felt very safe.

Samantha Broun

Do you remember the day of September 21st? Do you remember was it sunny? Did you go to work? Do you remember anything about the day?

Jeremy Brown

My memory is that it was a very ordinary day of going to work

Samantha Broun

When this happened my mom was working as a drug and alcohol counselor, helping people kick addictions. When she got home that night--

Jeremy Brown

It was time I thought to get the recyclables outside and the garbage down to the curb.

Samantha Broun

She went out the kitchen, into the breezeway--

Jeremy Brown

Through the door and the moon was out and it was lovely out.

Samantha Broun

She bent over to pick up the box of recyclables and was struck with a fist, a pipe--

Jeremy Brown

It was like if somebody threw a bowling ball at your back. That's how hard it hit me.

Samantha Broun

Her arms were pinned behind her.

Jeremy Brown

This person put his face right in my neck, next to my ear.

Samantha Broun

My mother screamed.

Jeremy Brown

He kept yelling, shut up, in my ear, shut up.

Samantha Broun

She struggled. She even bit down on the gloved hand he put over her mouth.

Samantha Broun

Did you see him?

Jeremy Brown

No. He was behind me. And after I bit him was when, I believe, he began to hit me in my head and only in my head until I passed out.

Samantha Broun

My mom grew up about 20 minutes from where she was living in 1994. She is the youngest of five children. Her father was an apple and peach farmer. The story goes that she was supposed to be a boy, which is how she ended up with the name Jeremy. When she was old enough to leave home, she tried college, but dropped out and moved into New York City to make a go of it as a singer. She was in the course of My Fair Lady on Broadway when she met my dad.

My mom stopped auditioning in the city once she had my brother and me, but she never gave up singing or the theater. It wasn't until her early 50s that she became certified as a drug and alcoholism counselor. She was really good at it. McFadden pulled my mother up and pushed her toward the house. One of her eye sockets was broken, her nose fractured, her teeth knocked loose. Her eyes were swelling shut. McFadden demanded she not look at him. When they got in the house, he draped a towel over my mother's head.

Jeremy Brown

And he started to take my pants off. And I remember so clearly thinking what in the world is he doing. By then, I was a typical rape victim. You go to a place where you have no idea what's going on. None of the words that apply to what's going on come into your head. You're in a space that just does not understand anything so that you can look down at a strange man pulling your pants off and think, why is he doing this? What is this? I don't remember specifically much after that, except that he did rape me on that bed, my bed.

Samantha Broun

McFadden started to ask my mom all sorts of questions. She decided not to lie about anything. Her sense was if she was honest, she might connect to something in him.

Jeremy Brown

Something beneath the violence innately, I just knew that I should talk very straight and calmly to this guy and not let him get me hysterical, because I just sort of had a feeling that if I got hysterical, I'd die.

Samantha Broun

What my mother had no way of knowing then was that McFadden did plan to kill her. In fact, he had murdered Robert Silk on Long Island just two weeks before. The week after he attacked my mom, he sexually assaulted and killed 78-year-old Margaret Kierer, also on Long Island, and Dana DeMarco in Rockland County the week after that. She was 39 years old. The police eventually referred to McFadden as a serial killer. My mother, it turned out, was his only surviving victim.

Stories like these get shortened over time to sentences like the one I started with, my mother is the victim of a violent crime, and usually, you leave it at that. I know it's hard to hear the details, but you won't understand why this crime got so much attention and why it's so hard for my mom to get it out of her head if you don't hear what actually happened. So let me try to tell you in a condensed version, for all our sakes, the rest of what happened to my mother that night.

McFadden put my mother in a sleeping bag and took her in her own car to various ATMs to steal her money. He beat her when she tried to escape. There was one point during the night, and this is key, that my mother finally saw him. They were standing in front of a bureau that had a mirror hanging over it. They were looking through her jewelry.

Jeremy Brown

And I just tipped my head up enough so that my eyes came out from under the towel, and in the mirror I saw him behind me. And he was a black man and he needed a shave.

Samantha Broun

What did you think when you saw him?

Jeremy Brown

I remember thinking he is cleaner and neater than you would think a criminal doing all these horrible things would be. To me, he was not the stereotypical criminal.

Samantha Broun

At the end of the night, he took my mother to a place we now know was off the Garden State Parkway. It's the same spot he took Dana DeMarco two weeks later and where they later found a DeMarco's body. He raped my mother again and then--

Jeremy Brown

He put both his hands on my neck and started to strangle me. But here's the miracle of all times. I put my hands on top of his and I said in a little voice, what are you doing? You're hurting me. And he let go.

Samantha Broun

What do you think happened? What do you think happened in that moment?

Jeremy Brown

I hate to use the words like bond or love or anything like that, but by then, he felt bonded somehow or other enough to me to respect me. I think he lost the drive. If you're going to kill a lamb, you're going to have to do it very quickly, right? Because if you start to look at the lamb or listen to the lamb or play with the lamb, you're not going to hurt it. And I think that's what happened.

Samantha Broun

McFadden brought my mother back to her house, bound her hands and feet with tape, and eventually he walked out. It was close to 3:00 in the morning when my mother reached for a phone. She called my brother who lived nearby.

Jeremy Brown

And I just flew down that stairs. I don't even remember my feet hitting the stairs into his arms. And he was screaming and he was spinning around for some reason. He sort of put his arms up over his head and he was just running around and around I'm holding him and grabbing him and trying to stop him. And just kept saying, it's OK. It's OK. Get me to the hospital.

Samantha Broun

When I got the call that this happened, I packed up my belongings at graduate school and I headed home. When I arrived at the hospital the next day and saw her barely recognizable face, my mother tells me I screamed. My heart had never been broken like this before. I had never been exposed to such violence, never felt the rage that it inspired in me, never imagined I would want revenge like I wanted revenge on Reginald McFadden.

It's difficult to look beyond the devastating details of what happened to my mother that night, but when I do, I see that in the big picture, other things matter, too. The fact is crimes like these are rare, but it's crimes like these-- a black man, a repeat offender, attacking a white middle class woman-- that inspires fear and outrage in communities across the country, and crimes like these that change things, which is exactly what happened next.

But in the moments before this became swept up in the media, before it became a manhunt, before a jury was selected and a verdict issued, before it ruined some careers and made others, before it was used to change laws, in the moments before all that and in every single moment since, there is simply the unbelievable truth that this happened to my mother.

Reporter 1

Reginald McFadden was found guilty of raping, robbing, and beating a 55-year-old woman. McFadden--

Reporter 2

It did not take the jury long to return a verdict yesterday, 15 minutes.

Reporter 3

Today's verdict means an end to a long and painful ordeal for the victim in this case.

Reporter 4

Most rape victims prefer to remain anonymous, not this 55-year-old social worker.

Jeremy Brown

My name is Jeremy, Jeremy Brown. How wonderful it feels to tell you who I am.

Samantha Broun

Once the trial was over, my mother went public. She gave speeches, made appearances on TV, she was named the Woman of the Year by CBS.

Reporter 5

Has Jeremy Brown earned the place of honor in the history of rape convictions?

Reporter 6

She certainly has and she is certainly, I know an inspiration to many of the women who have not had the ability to go forward.

Samantha Broun

Beyond the amazing fact that she had survived the attack, there was another reason my mother wanted to speak out. It's that she had survived the trial, too. In one of the most surreal twists of this whole ordeal, Reginald McFadden defended himself in court, which meant he cross-examined my mother. Trial transcripts show exchanges like this. McFadden asked, but at some time in that night, your attacker got out the car and walked around and closed the door and hollered at you? My mother replied, I think he did, he-- you beat on me from the front seat and I was very scared. I thought you were going to kill me right then.

Jeremy Brown

Basically, I'm mad as hell and I got to talk about it. Think about being tortured by a stranger for five hours, think about listening to his voice telling you all those disgusting things to do for five hours. And then you have to sit in a courtroom, listen to people call him Mr. McFadden. Think what it would do to you to have him say your name.

Samantha Broun

My mother shared her story because she felt better when she did, or at least less alone. And because she hoped that by speaking out, it might change things for herself, for others. The day after McFadden sentencing, I returned to graduate school. Eventually, my mother started working again as an addiction counselor. She even moved back into her house. It wasn't easy, but it was important, she said, that he not take the house away from her.

When I set out to interview people, I started with my mom, and then I drew up a list of names-- cops, politicians, journalists, academics, other victims, and my brother.

Samantha Broun

Are you nervous?

Tim Broun

Not really, no.

Samantha Broun

Are you uncomfortable?

Tim Broun

I'm a little impatient, so, yes. OK.

Samantha Broun

OK. Anyway, I wanted to say-- so you're chewing your gum.

Tim Broun

I know, but you're talking.

Samantha Broun

But I can hear it.

Tim Broun

OK.

Samantha Broun

Tim is older than me, but only by 15 months. It's an age difference that has stopped mattering now that we're both approaching 50. You probably remember that Tim was the first person to see my mom the night she was attacked. In 20 years, we've never discussed any of it.

Samantha Broun

Do you have any questions about it that you've never had answers?

Tim Broun

No. I don't. You know, part of me is like, I guess, maybe I'm in denial about it. I don't know. But a lot of people have been through a lot of really bad shit and that includes seeing people killed, car accidents, going to war, physical abuse, you name it. It's all out there, you know, so I don't think about why or why my mother or it's a fucking horrible thing that happened, really bad, but she's alive and, you know, she's completely physically capable person who's living a full and rich life. And it was a long time ago. But as far as I know, I don't carry it around with me as some weight or stone or what have you.

Samantha Broun

I do still carry it with me. Sometimes, it sits so quietly, I think it might be gone. But other times, it courses through my system with such surprise and force, it makes me dizzy. It happens in mundane moments. Like recently, my mom called from a highway rest stop to say hello and that she just bought a hot dog. It suddenly hits me she survived a serial killer. And the reality of what could have happened overwhelms me.

I explained to Tim that I'm headed out to find the others who were affected by this event. I tell them I have questions I want answered and I think talking to others will help somehow. I tell him I think about forgiveness. I hope that doesn't seem crazy, but that's what we're taught, right? That if we can forgive, we get some sort of relief. But how do you do that? I know my mother is very clear. She'll never forgive McFadden and I could guess about my brother.

Samantha Broun

Do you think you've forgiven him?

Tim Broun

No.

Samantha Broun

Do you think you need to or want to?

Tim Broun

Me? Not particularly. Fuck him. I don't give a shit about him. I don't even really like discussing it, to be honest with you, although this has been OK.

Samantha Broun

Why don't you like discussing it?

Tim Broun

I don't really see the point.

Samantha Broun

I wish I have a little bit of that. I mean, I'm doing the opposite thing here. I'm like talking to lots of people. What do you think of that? What do you think about me talking like--

Tim Broun

I'm kind of curious what the point of the whole project is, but go for it, you know. Let's see where it goes. I don't know. Good for you. Better you than me.

Samantha Broun

I hope he's right. Near the top of my list of people to talk to were the men who had voted on McFadden's commutation from prison in Pennsylvania. Some background first. Pretty much the only way out for lifers in Pennsylvania, besides escape or death, is to have their sentence commuted. Historically, commutation has been common practice there. It serves as a release valve, a way to reward good behavior, and give prisoners sentenced to life hope for a second chance.

After serving 25 to 30 years of a life sentence, if lifers show remorse and behave themselves in prison, they have a shot at commutation. The crime McFadden was seeking commutation for happened in 1969. He was convicted of the burglary and murder of Sonia Rosenbaum, a 60-year-old woman in Philadelphia. McFadden committed the crime with three other teenagers. He was 16, at the time. His record was already filled with over a dozen arrests. And for this crime, he was sentenced to life without parole.

By 1992, McFadden had been in prison for just over 20 years. He had applied for commutation seven times with no luck. The eighth time was different. He succeeded.

Ernest Preate

I was very skeptical to my fellow pardons board members.

Samantha Broun

Republican Ernest Preate was the Attorney General for Pennsylvania in the late '80s, early '90s. He was the only person to vote no on McFadden's commutation.

Ernest Preate

I said, I don't like this guy. I don't think he's ready to go. Very, very hesitant to recommend him to the governor.

Samantha Broun

Preate thought McFadden was too young, just 39, and that he could easily go on to commit other crimes. He told me something else that shed light on the case. Apparently, the Department of Corrections supported McFadden, because McFadden had ratted on fellow prisoners during violent riots that erupted at the Camp Hill prison in the 1980s.

Ernest Preate

The department was recommending, the Department of Corrections, was recommending him so that this was part of the payback to McFadden was we'll recommend you for a commutation, because you've been helpful to us in dealing with the riot at Camp Hill.

Samantha Broun

Nearly everyone I spoke with mentioned that McFadden's cooperation at Camp Hill helped him get his commutation.

Mark Singel

I have a feeling it's going to be grueling

Samantha Broun

I get the sense that you're scared.

Mark Singel

I'm scared of something. I don't know what it is.

Samantha Broun

Well, I'm nervous about this. I mean, I have thought a lot about you over the last 20 years.

Five people sit on the Pennsylvania board of pardons. When McFadden applied for commutation in 1992, Democrat Mark Singel was the Lieutenant Governor and the head of the board. Although his vote counted the same as everyone else's, it was Mark Singel, more than anyone, who was blamed for what happened once McFadden got out. He was the former board member I most wanted to talk to. When I thought of other people who must be haunted by this event, I thought Mark Singel.

Mark Singel

The Board of Pardons was always skeptical. I mean, the numbers of people that we even consider was minuscule, microscopic.

Samantha Broun

The board never met Reginald McFadden. Amazingly, that wasn't part of the commutation process in Pennsylvania. But others spoke on his behalf, and McFadden had to submit piles of paperwork, including descriptions of past crimes, names of current sponsors, and accomplishments in prison.

Mark Singel

What I recall about the McFadden presentation was that everybody was on board. The psychologist and the warden and the corrections people were all saying that this is somebody who had done extraordinarily well.

Samantha Broun

The board voted 4 to 1 in favor of McFadden's commutation. Singel voted yes. He believed he was doing the right thing.

Mark Singel

I have to tell you that my own personal background, I grew up in a very Catholic and a specific type of Catholicism, Byzantine Catholic. When we were very young, the whole family would go in and sing the mass every day in old Slavonic and the phrase that we would sing over 100 times during the liturgy was Gospodi pomilui, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy. And my family believed in that.

Samantha Broun

That makes you emotional.

Mark Singel

Yeah, yeah.

Samantha Broun

So you felt like here you were in a position to have mercy on people.

Mark Singel

To do my job as a human being, not just as the Lieutenant Governor.

Samantha Broun

When McFadden walked out of prison, he was 41 and had never spent a day of his adult life as a free man. Surprisingly, McFadden didn't go to a halfway house, a bureaucratic oversight. McFadden's transition didn't go well. Within a month, he went through two or three jobs and started stealing from his roommate. Within two months, he started to spiral out of control, killing Robert Silk, Margaret Kierer, and Dana DeMarco, and of course, attacking my mom.

During the first week of October, just 92 days after he was released from prison, Reginald McFadden was arrested as the prime suspect of these crimes. News of McFadden's arrest arrived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania where Democrat, Mark Singel, was ahead in the governor's race against Republican Tom Ridge. In October of 1994, Tom Ridge wasn't well-known, not even in Pennsylvania. He was a Congressman representing a small rural district. Mark Singel, on the other hand, had been the Lieutenant Governor for nearly eight years. The feeling across the state was that Mark Singel was a shoo-in.

Mark Singel

So they were ready to just simply transfer the mantle and I could feel it all across Pennsylvania. Tom Ridge never got close, never got close.

Samantha Broun

And then McFadden happened.

Mark Singel

And all they had to do was to put an ad up and put McFadden's picture out there, say see? We told you. This is what happens when you're weak on crime.

Man

Mark Singel votes to free a convicted murderer. The man Mark Singel voted to free is arrested for rape and murder. Mark Singel, bad judgement, too liberal on crime. How can we ever trust him again? There's a better choice, Tom Ridge. The judgement and character we trust.

Mark Singel

And then, everything shifted. The whole tectonic plates of my universe changed and we watched that campaign disintegrate. It went from an eight point lead to us being seven points behind in 48 hours. 15 point swing. I've never, ever seen that in politics.

Samantha Broun

Mark Singel's career as a politician was over and Tom Ridge's was about to soar. It took months and a lot of persistence to land an interview with Ridge.

Samantha Broun

My understanding is that from what I've read and from what I remember that Reginald McFadden was a real turning point in the election. Do you see it that way?

Tom Ridge

Well I can't, I mean, I can't doubt that it had an impact, but from my perspective, what it did for me was put an exclamation point on what I've been talking about for over a year.

Samantha Broun

I met Tom Ridge in a huge suite of offices in downtown Washington DC, where he now runs a security consulting firm. In 2001, George W. Bush asked Ridge to leave his post as Governor of Pennsylvania and to join him at the White House to head up what would become the new Department of Homeland Security. But back in 1995, having beaten Mark Singel in the election, Tom Ridge was being sworn in as the Governor of Pennsylvania. The main thing that won the election was his stance on crime.

Samantha Broun

And so once elected, what did you feel your mandate was then on this issue?

Tom Ridge

Well I told cloaks, if you elect me, one of the first things that I'm going to do, I'm going to call a special session on crime and that's exactly what we did.

Samantha Broun

The same special session on crime that I testified in, the same special session that focused on getting tough and, essentially, putting an end to any chance of commutation for lifers. Here's the thing, this was the mid '90s. Crime was one of the top issues on most voters' minds in Pennsylvania and across the country. People wanted to feel safe. For Tom Ridge, who was already running as a tough on crime candidate, Reginald McFadden's spree was, strange to say, perfectly timed. Although sprees like McFadden's are extremely rare, it had the exact class and racial components to draw in the media and incite public hysteria.

Samantha Broun

A lot of people who I've spoken to talk about the constitutional changes that went into effect as a result of the special session and that that makes it nearly impossible for people to have their sentence commuted. And I, as a person who testified at that special session and perhaps contributed to those changes being made, I think about that a lot, because I think about the lives that are being impacted. Do you ever think about those changes and wonder if, perhaps, they're too strict or wonder about the impact of those changes and the reduced number of people getting commuted?

Tom Ridge

Candidly, that's a fair question and I haven't given it much thought. But most of my opinions I hold today, I held 20 or 30 years ago, but not all of them. So.

Samantha Broun

I've asked everybody this question and I think all the people that I'm meeting with are-- I'm choosing because I believe this incident changed their life personally, and I'm wondering how you think this incident, McFadden, changed your life, personally?

Tom Ridge

I hope you're not disappointed, but I'm not sure it did. It changed your mother's life, it changed the lives of many families. It's certainly in a positive way I'd like to think changed the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of other families and victims, but for me personally, the only thing it did was to re-affirm in my own mind that the approach I took towards reforming some of the criminal justice system was the right thing to do.

Samantha Broun

I think my personal connection to all this made some of the people I interviewed nervous and careful. That's understandable and it made me all the more grateful to Mark Singel, the guy who lost the election, for the way he talked to me, like when I asked him difficult questions like this one.

Samantha Broun

If you had the chance to say something to my mom or to the family members of the other--

Mark Singel

Just that I'm terribly sorry. That I feel to the people who were the immediate victims I hurt them and I didn't mean to. So there you have it.

Samantha Broun

Hearing Mark Singel say this eased something in me. My mother felt the same way when I played it for her.

Jeremy Brown

That's wonderful that he expressed such personal feelings with you, because that's the human being.

Samantha Broun

The last time we talked and we went through what happened on September 21st, how is that for you?

Jeremy Brown

I think it went pretty well. I do. Is it difficult for me to share it or to revisit it? No. It's a reality for me. I guess some difficulty is carrying it around and--

Samantha Broun

What are the scars you have from this? I don't know if you actually have physical scars, but any kind of scars. What are the scars that you have?

Jeremy Brown

I can't sing. That's it. It's huge.

Samantha Broun

What does it mean for you not to be able to sing?

Jeremy Brown

Well, I was a bird who could sing. I can sing, right? But I cry, so it stops me and that's very painful because that was who I was. I was a girl who was born with a voice and I could sing and I can't now.

Samantha Broun

It's true. My mother was not only a singer on Broadway, but she used to be one of those people who would break into song in public places. I haven't heard that in years. By this time, I'd been working on this project for well over a year. I still had people I wanted to talk to-- prison staff, former inmates, and people close to McFadden, like Charlotte.

Samantha Broun

Let me just say I really appreciate that you're sitting here, because I've thought about you for a long time, your family, and it took me 20 years to pick up the phone and figure out where you were. And even once I thought I knew your number, it took me a long time to make the call. And then I felt bad every time I called back because I thought they don't want to talk to me, you know.

Charlotte

And you know what is true? You still want to led you right, but look where it put you.

Samantha Broun

It was mid-July, hot, and I was sitting in a car with Charlotte McFadden, Reginald's youngest sister. We were in front of her house in Philadelphia, the house McFadden grew up in. Charlotte had no idea I was coming, neither did I, until I decided to the day before. When I got there, she was out on the street working with a neighbor under the hood of her car. I saw her and immediately knew she was a McFadden. She knew who I was, too.

Charlotte

I felt it. That's why I turned my back because I couldn't look at you because I felt it, too.

Samantha Broun

It was an awkward beginning, but we ended up talking for over an hour. I asked her how things have been for her all these years.

Charlotte

I still, like inside hurts. I'm in here hurting because I have to squeeze it down just to get through. Even like now, like when I go to use my name, certain bells get rung because people say McFadden.

Samantha Broun

Charlotte talked about her brother and what his crimes had done to her family. She said he was pretty young when he started getting into trouble, but for her, he was always her protector. Charlotte had questions for me, too.

Charlotte

Your mom, like, I would love to give her a hug and let her know that I'm glad she survived it and everything is OK, but I know somewhere in her head, she got to be still going through a turmoil. It's hard, probably, very hard for her and it's understandable.

Samantha Broun

Yeah.

Charlotte

You know, it is very understandable. Is she OK now?

Samantha Broun

She's OK, but it haunts her every day.

Charlotte

Mm-hmm. I can imagine.

Samantha Broun

Do you think-- I think about forgiveness a lot, because I would really like to forgive your brother. And I think that's part of me doing this, too, is I want to understand him and why he did what he did. And I think if I could forgive him, I'd feel better.

Charlotte

So you haven't forgiven him yet?

Samantha Broun

I feel like I walk towards it, but when I talk to my mom and see how she carries it, I feel like I might be disloyal to her if I forgave him.

Charlotte

That's understandable, though.

Ira Glass

Coming up, approaching McFadden. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: Act Two

Ira Glass

This American Life, Ira Glass. All this hour, we're hearing Samantha Broun's story. We're visiting a crime committed two decades ago by Reginald McFadden and its aftermath. Again, here's Samantha.

Samantha Broun

Interviewing McFadden himself was something I'd always thought about. And after talking with Charlotte, I felt it was the obvious next step. I wanted to sit across from him. I needed to hear if he was remorseful. If he was remorseful and I could believe him, maybe that would help, maybe. But when I called Attica, the prison in New York where he is now, to ask about interviewing him, I was told that McFadden is in solitary confinement. He'll be there for five years. He had pulled a fake gun on prison guards. He had planned to escape.

On top of that, prison officials and crime victim advocates expressed concern about my wanting to talk to him. They described McFadden as manipulative and unpredictable, and I began to fear he might say things about what happened that night that I wouldn't want to hear. Still, I tried several avenues to get to him through the Department of Corrections, but I was denied permission to record. I do have some courtroom audio of him during the period of his murder convictions, just to give you an idea of who he was then. The music was added by a TV show it was used on.

Reginald Mcfadden

I guess this is an opportunity for me to say I'm remorseful, I'm sorry. Well, I'm not remorseful and I'm not sorry because I'm not guilty. OK. Give me the maximum sentence. Matter of fact, give me 1,000 years because it wouldn't make a difference. Oh, if it was possible for me to sign my own death warrant, I don't fear death because I've seen death 1,000 times over. It don't make a difference to me. Humph.

Samantha Broun

Since I couldn't record a conversation with McFadden, I tracked down someone who had spent time with him, Mark Safarik, a former profiler with the FBI, who classified McFadden as a psychopath.

Samantha Broun

In my fantasy version of all of this, I was going to end up going to meet him and we'd have a conversation in which he had some remorse and that would help.

Mark Safarik

And he, honestly, might tell you that he's remorseful and sorry for what he did. I don't believe that that would be true. And he will clearly understand who you are and, in a sense, why you're there and I think he would make an effort to twist that in a way that would be harmful and hurtful. I don't think anything good could come out of it.

Samantha Broun

So how is there resolution? Because I don't feel it.

Mark Safarik

Yeah, I don't know that there is. What's the resolution, you know? He's incarcerated for the rest of his life. Was it a mistake to let him out? Absolutely. He should never have been let out. But I don't know that there's ever any resolution. I think, certainly, the edges of those wounds get softer, but those wounds never go away. They never heal.

Samantha Broun

Talking to Mark Safarik, I understood, or maybe I should say I finally accepted, that I'd never get what I wanted from McFadden. I'm not going to see him express remorse. What I'm left with is my own remorse for something I feel guilty about and that's what has happened to lifers in Pennsylvania. That may sound weird, but I know my testimony contributed to their current situation.

Samantha Broun

Each of you is in a position to do something. You will have the opportunity to vote on legislative changes that would reduce the chances of something like this from ever happening again. You owe it to Sonia Rosenbaum, to Margaret Kierer, to Robert Silk, and to my mother.

My words may have made only a small contribution to the changes that were to come, but they were still part of it. As a result of that Special Session on Crime, the Pennsylvania State Constitution was amended to make recommendation for a commuted sentence nearly impossible. On top of that, for decades now, no politician has wanted to vote yes on commutations for fear of professional suicide. And remember, all this happened in the 1990s, the Tough on Crime era. The result, the door slammed shut on lifers.

Martin Horn

What I do remember, most of all, is that during the first year that I was the head of corrections in Pennsylvania, the first 12 months, and I remember feeling like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. I mean, we just sort of creating space as quickly as we could. It was a very dramatic time.

Samantha Broun

Martin Horn was Pennsylvania's Secretary of Corrections under Tom Ridge. When the changes were put into place, it was Horn who had to deal with what those changes meant inside the prisons.

Martin Horn

Lifers in the Pennsylvania system are actually a very stabilizing force. They have an interest in the civility of life within the prison, if you will, but the lifers during those several years that I was there, were really demoralized and saw no hope of ever getting out. And a prisoner without hope is a much more difficult prisoner to manage than a prisoner who has some hope.

Tyrone Werts

My name is Tyrone Werts. I've served close to 37 years incarcerated in the Graterford prison in Pennsylvania. My sentence was commuted in 2010 by former Governor Rendell. I've been home about three years and a couple of months.

Samantha Broun

In 1975, Tyrone Werts was involved with a robbery. Someone was killed in the process. Werts, who was waiting in the car, was given life without parole for second degree murder. Since his sentence was commuted, Werts has been honored for the work he has done related to prison reform.

Samantha Broun

What role would you say McFadden played in your life personally?

Tyrone Werts

It was huge, huge.

Samantha Broun

In the two decades leading up to Reginald McFadden, 285 lifers had their sentences commuted. In the two decades since, there have been eight. From 285 to eight and Tyrone Werts is one of them.

Tyrone Werts

When I went in, there was only about 800 lifers in the whole state serving life. Now we got 5,000. McFadden kind of slammed the door shut on the lifers in Pennsylvania.

Samantha Broun

To be exact, there are currently 5,483 lifers in Pennsylvania prisons. The increase is mostly because of the overall growth in incarceration rates, not because of McFadden. But thanks to McFadden, lifers have very little hope of commutation. 75% of Pennsylvania lifers are people of color. In the 1980s, Werts and McFadden were in the same prison for a while.

Tyrone Werts

We inside say that there are two kinds of crime-- there are economic crimes, there are psychological crimes. McFadden had a psychological crime.

Samantha Broun

Werts said that lifers pay close attention when someone's commutation makes it past the Board and to the Governor's desk.

Tyrone Werts

Because the one thing we know as lifers is that anybody gets out carry the weight of the lifer population on their back. So I mean we talk about it all the time about who we would let out, who we wouldn't let out.

Samantha Broun

And what was the feeling when people heard that McFadden had made it to the Governor's desk?

Tyrone Werts

There was apprehension. There really was. I mean, I've heard that from a number of people. Man, you say, now I hope this guy don't make it.

Samantha Broun

With McFadden's rearrest and commutations essentially shut down, Werts said a dark cloud settled over Pennsylvania prisons.

Tyrone Werts

As a matter of fact, I think it's still there, because the hope has just been sucked out of a possibility of lifers getting out. That's just been sucked away. Look, the day I walked out of Graterford, there were-- they posted 200 guys in the hallway waiting to greet me as I left. And I walked down that long corridor weeping like a baby crying, because I knew as I was leaving that all these guys I was hugging was going to die in Pennsylvania prisons because they're not going to get the same opportunity that I have. And without question, I recognized that based on the changes that were made as a result of McFadden and the horrible crimes he committed, and I really want to say that I really feel bad that this had to happen to your mother, but McFadden is not representative of the broader lifer population. He was truly an anomaly.

John Mccullough

Other than Reggie, I don't know a single lifer that we let go that got in trouble again. You know, they just go out and disappear.

Samantha Broun

John McCullough worked in Pennsylvania prisons for over 30 years. In fact, he was the Deputy Superintendent of Rock View Prison, where McFadden was before his sentence was commuted.

John Mccullough

So the whole ripple effect from McFadden has been to make us more conservative. Why take the risk at all? Just let the easy ones out. And the sad thing is, in a lot of cases, the easy ones are the junkies who are going to go right out and shoot dope and get in trouble again, whereas a lot of these old lifers will never be a problem again.

Samantha Broun

I don't know what it will take to undo what's been done in Pennsylvania. In the late '90s, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of Pennsylvania lifers for their right to a fair shot at commutation. It remained in the courts for over 10 years before it was finally dismissed. Unfortunately, success stories of lifers like Tyrone Werts don't create the same fervor that crimes like Reginald McFadden's do. But after spending the past 2 and 1/2 years investigating the effects of this crime, I want to tell you this. When I testified in Harrisburg back in 1995, I spoke from a place of fear and anger. I didn't notice the political forces poised to capitalize on that. I didn't have the distance I have now to see what my testimony would be used for, what the consequences might be.

My testimony equates all lifers with Reginald McFadden and that's not fair. Look, I don't speak for all victims. I don't even speak for my whole family, but to set the record straight, I do believe in the possibility of second chances.

My mom still suffers from post-traumatic stress, but she tells me that this whole project has made her feel a bit lighter.

Samantha Broun

So I'm just wondering how it's been for you to do this?

Jeremy Brown

Well, I have thought about how it shifted for me. When you started to do this piece, talking to all these people and saying, how did it affect you? Where are you now? How often do you think about it? It feels like the community is brought in again so it strengthens me and I'm not alone.

Samantha Broun

And she's actually been singing. When she's driving in the car or at home by herself, she'll sing, Not like she used to. She still cries, but she's singing.

Ira Glass

Samantha Broun. Today's story was produced by Samantha Broun and Jay Allison on Cape Cod for the Public Radio website Transom.org.

Credits

Ira Glass

If you want to make radio stories or podcasts, I want to say Transom.org is this non-profit with free advice on how to do that, primers on the gear that you want to get, and software that's best, as well as essays on story structure and technique by people like me and Jad Appenrod and Errol Morris and Scott Carrier and lot of others. They also give amazing workshops. They're great, again, at Transom.org.

[MUSIC - "I WANT TO SING" BY FIONA KELLEHER"]

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our production staff Susan Burton, Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Neil Drumming, Karen Duffin, Emmanuel Dzotsi, Stephanie Foo, Channa Joffe-Walt, David Kestenbaum, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Matt Tierney, and Nancy Updike. Robyn Semien produced today's episode. Research help today from Christopher Swetala. Music help from Damian Grave. Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. He is not into pets. When I told him I was getting a dog, he said--

Torey Malatia

I'm kind of curious what the point in the whole project is, but go for it, you know. Let's see where it goes. I don't know. Good for you. Better you than me.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.