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A Pa. state prisoner has Gov. Josh Shapiro’s support in compassionate release case

FILE-Portrait of Ezra Bozeman {Courtesy of Christine Roess}
Courtesy of Christine Roess
Portrait of Ezra Bozeman

HARRISBURG — Gov. Josh Shapiro has thrown the weight of the governor’s office behind an incarcerated man’s petition for medical release from Pennsylvania state prison, likely the first time a sitting governor has explicitly endorsed this kind of plea by someone in state custody.

On May 2, attorneys for Ezra Bozeman, one of Pennsylvania’s oldest and longest-serving prisoners, filed a petition asking an Allegheny County judge to grant his transfer under Pennsylvania’s “compassionate release” law, a statute that purports to provide the sick and dying with a way to leave prison to receive care.

The law is one of the only methods available to people like Bozeman, who have critical medical needs the prison system cannot provide. But petitions like Bozeman’s are rare.

As Spotlight PA haspreviously reported, the law is deeply flawed and written so narrowly that few people qualify.

As a result, the state has received very few petitions since the legislature established the process in 2009. In many cases, petitioners have died before their petitions were ever heard by a judge. As of November 2023, only about 48 have been successful in 14 years.

Rarer still is a line on page seven of Bozeman’s petition: “Based on the specific circumstances outlined in this petition, Governor Josh Shapiro supports the relief requested.”

“I don’t think it’s ever been done before,” said Rupalee Rashatwar. Rashatwar and other attorneys with the Abolitionist Law Center are representing Bozeman alongside the Amistad Law Project; both are activist firms that have specialized in compassionate release petitions in recent years.

Bozeman’s petition for medical transfer will be heard on May 14 in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. Despite Shapiro’s endorsement, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala filed a brief opposing Bozeman’s transfer to a long-term medical care facility.

Bozeman is requesting relief under the portion of Pennsylvania’s compassionate release law that allows temporary transfer for incarcerated people who need medical care beyond what the prison can provide. The statute requires all petitioners to have less than a year to live at the time of filing.

Despite a letter from neurosurgeon Eric Quach predicting Bozeman’s imminent death without additional specialized care, Zappala argued that prison providers determined his prognosis is ambiguous.

“The prognosis for … Bozeman is unclear, but his life expectancy will clearly be decreased due to his injury,” wrote Dr. Andrew Dancha, his provider at SCI Laurel Highlands, on May 1. “At this time, I am unable to provide a life expectancy as this varies widely with different individuals with ever-changing medical issues.”

Bozeman has been incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prisons since he was a teenager. In 1975, he was tried and convicted of killing Morris Wietz, the co-owner of a dry cleaner in Pittsburgh, a crime Bozeman maintains he did not commit.

Over the subsequent five decades spent in state prison, Bozeman became a peer specialist, providing support services for other incarcerated individuals, completed college courses, and met his fiancé, Christine Roess, whose advocacy led to Shapiro’s involvement in his case.

In 2022, Bozeman responded to a survey sent by Spotlight PA as part of an investigation into the experiences of people aging behind bars and the flaws in Pennsylvania's restrictive compassionate release statute.

Many of the people who responded to Spotlight PA described repeated unsuccessful attempts to get their sentences pardoned or commuted, the only other method of release available to those serving life who have exhausted their options in court.

At the time, Bozeman described his experiences with hypertension, complications from what he called a “mini-stroke” he suffered in 2019, and some “yet-to-be determined” neurological issues. He later told Spotlight PA the stroke had been misdiagnosed; doctors found he instead suffered from pinched nerves in his spine, he wrote in late 2022.

According to his medical release petition, Bozeman’s spinal compression went untreated for another year until he required emergency surgery at Temple University Hospital in early February. He made a nearly full recovery, according to medical records, but a lung clot discovered shortly after he returned from prison led to complications and ultimately quadriplegia.

“For quadriplegics, there are so many conditions you can suffer at any moment, and so many things you can’t do: getting a sip of water, accessing the phone, going to the bathroom and feeding,” Rashatwar said in an interview with Spotlight PA. “All these complications he’s figuring out how to navigate and that’s part of the urgency of it.”

Bozeman now requires assistance to do simple quality-of-life activities like eating or using the bathroom. After his surgery at Temple, he was receiving specialized physical therapy twice a day from Magee Rehabilitation, Roess said. At SCI Laurel Highlands, Pennsylvania’s prison for incarcerated individuals with complex medical needs, he has only been able to receive therapy twice, she said.

“This is his window of opportunity to regain some functionality, but he needs intensive physical therapy,” Roess said.

Since his return to prison, Bozeman’s condition has “rapidly deteriorated,” according to the petition, and he developed a bone-deep bed sore that required additional surgery to clean.

“He lost 50 pounds, he suffers from a stage 4 pressure wound, and he now requires a colostomy,” the petition states, referring to a surgery Bozeman needs to reroute his feces to a bag outside his body to keep it out of the wound. “Additionally, he is at risk of countless serious complications common to quadriplegics.”

One of Bozeman’s treating physicians from Temple University, Eric Quach, gave him less than a year to live without specialized care.

Roess attended a rally at the state Capitol on May 1 to advocate for those who, like Bozeman, are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Following the rally, she walked to Shapiro’s office unannounced, she said, and waited for over an hour before meeting with a member of the office’s legal staff.

Shapiro’s office said he decided to support the petition after considering “the unique facts of this case, including Mr. Bozeman’s rare medical status and length of time incarcerated,” said the governor’s spokesperson Manuel Bonder.

As his petition works through the courts, Bozeman also has an application for commutation before the Board of Pardons. The five-member board will meet on May 17 and must first vote to give Bozeman’s application a public hearing. If the application passes that hurdle, the board must reach unanimous consent to send Bozeman’s application to Shapiro for commutation.

Shapiro, when he was attorney general, voted against Bozeman’s application during the merit review stage. When asked whether the governor would sign a recommended commutation this year, Shapiro’s office did not answer, but instead highlighted the administration’s work to streamline the pardons process.

If Shapiro signs off, Bozeman’s life sentence will be reduced to lifetime parole, and he will go free.