PHILADELPHIA — Tyreem Rivers didn’t intend to hurt the elderly woman he followed home from the bank. He just wanted her black leather pocketbook stuffed with cash. As she climbed the stoop to her front door, he snatched the purse and ran.
He did not shove or hit the woman, court records show. But 85-year-old Mary Tonzola tumbled down her front steps, breaking several bones. She died two weeks later, after picking up infections in the hospital.
The day Rivers learned of her death, in June 1996, was the day the 18-year-old was arrested in her murder. The following year, he was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole. He has been behind bars for 26 years.
Under Pennsylvania law, prosecutors can bring a charge of felony murder, also known in the state as second-degree murder, against someone involved in a crime that led to a death — even if the person didn’t pull a trigger or mean to kill anyone. Conviction brings a sentence of mandatory life in prison without parole.
Now, the issue of felony murder’s role in criminal justice has become a flashpoint in Pennsylvania’s Senate race, one of the midterms’ most-watched contests, and one that is now focused on the issue of crime.
Democratic nominee John Fetterman doesn’t want life without parole to be mandatory in felony murder cases, and is criticizing racial inequities in who is charged with the crime. His Republican opponent, Mehmet Oz, is fixating on these issues to accuse Fetterman of being soft on crime in general, even falsely claiming the Democrat wants to free all murderers from prison. They are expected to spar over these issues during their only televised debate tonight.
The debate comes less than a week after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the felony murder law brought by Rivers and other prisoners. More than 1,100 people in the state are serving life sentences under the law, prison data show. Nearly 70% of them are Black, in a state where Black people make up about 12% of the population, an analysis of state data by The Marshall Project found.
Pennsylvania ranks behind only Louisiana in the number of people it sends to die in prison for second-degree murder; both states are outliers because of the strictness of their laws. They are among a handful of states, as well as the federal system, that mandate life without parole for these crimes.
Two states, Kentucky and Hawaii, have abolished felony murder. Colorado and California are among states that have recently changed their laws to try to limit who can be charged.
Felony murder is a leading contributor to the nation’s rising population of prisoners sentenced to die behind bars, according to The Sentencing Project, which advocates for ending life sentences for most crimes. It is hard to know how many prisoners nationwide are serving lifetime sentences for felony murder because of gaps in states’ data. But in California, which has more than 5,200 prisoners serving life without parole, the group estimates at least half are there for felony murder. In Pennsylvania, more than a thousand people — almost a quarter of those serving life without parole — were convicted of felony murder.
Many of those charged are young people who did not intend to kill someone, said Guyora Binder, a law professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and a leading legal expert on felony murder.
“Not only did they not pull the trigger, not only did they not intend to kill someone, but maybe their role in the crime is somewhat dubious; these are some of the most sympathetic cases,” he said. “There’s a lot of them.”
Many prosecutors in Pennsylvania see it differently. While there are cases that involve people who played a lesser role, like getaway drivers and lookouts, many of those convicted planned a violent crime and played a significant role in a murder, said Greg Rowe, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.
The group supported last week’s Supreme Court decision, he said, adding that the association may be open to changing the law so that there’s no longer a mandatory sentence of life without parole. But, he added, the voices of victims and their relatives must not be forgotten by lawmakers or in individual cases: “The family members of victims of felony murders are a critical component to any discussion about changing the statute.”
Fetterman has led the state’s Board of Pardons since 2019 as part of his duties as lieutenant governor, and under him, the number of commutations has increased. Board members must unanimously vote for commutations. He has advocated for reducing the sentences of some people convicted of felony murder. He has also criticized the law making a life sentence mandatory and not giving discretion to judges.
It’s a stance he’s maintained even as the race has tightened.
“John opposes the one-size-fits-all mandatory life sentencing approach,” said Joe Calvello, a campaign spokesman, in an emailed statement. “This does not mean he supports ending life sentences for felony murder.”
The candidates have sparred over a wide range of issues, including how Fetterman handled his recovery from a recent stroke and whether Oz, a celebrity TV host and former heart surgeon, is a carpetbagger from New Jersey.
But Fetterman’s views on felony murder and his record at the parole board have become top attack points for Oz. In mid-September, Republicans shifted ads away from inflation and toward claims that Fetterman is soft on crime.
One recent ad: “John Fetterman wants ruthless killers, muggers and rapists back on our streets, and he wants them back now.”
On Saturday, Oz called Fetterman “pro-murderer” on Fox News. The Oz campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
These Republican crime ads are one reason that after summer predictions of a victory for Democrats, the race is now a toss-up, said Jessica Taylor, an editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Both parties have long agreed the race would tighten closer to Election Day.
“I think these ads have a history in American politics,” Taylor said. “They’ve been effective back to the Willie Horton ad. That was the advent of a lot of this.”
Growing up in South Philly, Rivers said, he was flagged in school as “at-risk” at a young age. By high school, the 5-foot-5, 140-pound teenager still showed up for class, but began using cocaine and heroin.
“I didn’t expect to live past the age of 18,” he said in an interview.
During his trial in 1997, the judge acknowledged that the evidence showed Rivers had not intended to harm Tonzola.
“He’s a thief rather than a killer,” Judge David N. Savitt said then.
But Savitt also noted that Rivers’ fate was sealed under state law: “The crime is second-degree murder, and there’s nothing that I or anyone else can do about it.”
Rivers said he barely recognizes his teenage self.
“The kid that committed this crime was a dumb and stupid kid,” he said.
Rivers’ younger brother, Siraj, remembers idolizing Tyreem as a child and feeling devastated when he went to prison.
Siraj, 39, who works in construction, said his brother was the family extrovert, the one with the upbeat and optimistic personality of a motivational speaker. He wishes Tyreem could have a chance to prove himself outside of prison, Siraj said.
“Just look at him for the person he really is — really take a look at him and what he stands for,” Siraj said. “If anybody deserves a chance, it should be him.”
It’s more complicated for Tonzola’s family, said her grandnephew, Pete Mauro, 52, an electrical engineer.
Mauro said he loved his strong-willed, spirited great-aunt so much that he has kept little things she gave him: plastic toddler toys and a vial of holy water that’s long since evaporated. He sat through Rivers’ trial, and recalled thinking life without parole was a fitting punishment for taking a life: “My aunt is dead forever.”
He’s always wanted to talk to Rivers, Mauro said, to find out why he was stealing and whether he fully understands what Mauro’s family lost when Tonzola died.
Without that conversation, he said, how can he know whether Rivers has really changed?
“How do you know who deserves a second chance?” he asked. “It’s impossible for me to say without knowing him.”
In recent years, some Pennsylvania state legislators tried to eliminate the felony-murder rule and clear the way for people serving life without parole to get a chance at resentencing. Each time, the bill failed.
Rep. Chris Rabb, a Democrat who represents Philadelphia and visited Rivers’ prison in 2018, said he plans to try again because he believes the state spends too much money locking up people who aren’t likely to re-offend.
“They’re literally people who may have never touched a weapon, they’ve never planned a violent crime, they’ve never driven a getaway car,” he said. Putting them behind bars with no chance of getting out, he added, “is not proportionate to the harm done to society.”
In July 2020, a group of people serving life without parole for felony murder, including Rivers, sued the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, arguing that to deny them a chance at parole was cruel and unusual punishment — a violation of both the state and federal Constitutions.
They cited racial disparities in how prosecutors apply the law. They also argued that they had a low risk of committing new crimes, based on an academic study of people who were released after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people convicted as juveniles could not be automatically sentenced to life without parole.
But the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania on Wednesday upheld a lower court’s ruling that it did not have the power to decide whether people sentenced for felony murder should be eligible for parole.
In the meantime, people serving mandatory life sentences continue to ask for relief from prosecutors, especially in Philadelphia, where District Attorney Larry Krasner has made redressing injustices in the criminal legal system a focus.
But state law doesn’t allow prosecutors to review cases for broad injustices, such as someone receiving a longer sentence than merited by the crime, said Michael Garmisa, who heads the office’s conviction integrity unit. Its reviews are limited to claims of innocence, faulty evidence or violations of constitutional rights.
So the main pathway open to someone in a case like Rivers’ is to seek a prosecutor’s support for a commutation, he said, which Krasner’s office considers on a case-by-case basis. Garmisa said he could not comment on individual cases.
Rivers is incarcerated in the State Correctional Institution at Dallas, a series of small brick buildings in farm country outside of Wilkes-Barre, in northeastern Pennsylvania. The rolling hills, dotted with houses sporting “Back the Blue” and thin blue line flags, is about two-and-a-half hours — and a cultural world away — from the neighborhood where Rivers grew up.
Now 44, Rivers is short and bald, with a wiry black beard, thin-rimmed gold glasses and a broad smile. In prison, he said, he’s tried to immerse himself in studying. He’s earning an associates’ degree from the University of Scranton. He’s worked as a peer facilitator to help others work through mental health issues. Having recovered from drug and alcohol addiction, he said he wants to help other people do the same if released.
After Rivers’ allotted visitation time with a reporter ended, corrections officers told everyone to pack up. Then, a guard said they’d decided to give Rivers extra time, and moved the reporter to a small visiting booth, separated by glass.
While the reporter waited for Rivers to go through security, another officer walked over.
“Tyreem used to be on my block — good guy,” he said. “Doesn’t deserve to die in here.”
Staff writer Weihua Li contributed to this story.