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The last death-row inmate at Eastern State Penitentiary returns after 50 years in prison

June 6, 2019, Samantha Melamed - The Philadelphia Inquirer

The last time that Samuel Barlow visited Eastern State Penitentiary, he arrived surrounded by six or seven guards — an escort designed, as he understood it, to make other inmates view him as dangerous.

At the time, he was just a teenager, but he and a co-defendant would become the last death-row inmates at Philadelphia’s infamous prison, built to inspire penitence in 1829 and shuttered in 1970.

“They would go to extremes to make you feel like you were on death row. It didn’t feel like it to me,” Barlow, 68, recalled. “I couldn’t envision sitting in the electric chair, frying. ... As a kid, you can’t even see to next week half the time. So you can’t see yourself getting electrocuted.”

Barlow had served as a lookout in the 1968 robbery of the Dauphin Deposit Trust Co. while his co-conspirators, Forest Tarver and Sharon Wiggins, went in, demanding thousands of dollars at gunpoint. When bank patron George Morelock approached them, they fired, wounding him fatally.

Their death sentences were overturned in 1972, after a Supreme Court ruling voided capital punishment statutes around the country. But Barlow would spend the next 48 years serving life without parole.

In April, Gov. Tom Wolf commuted Barlow’s sentence. He was released to a Community Correction Center just more than three weeks ago — and on Wednesday evening, he walked through the open front gate of Eastern State and gazed up at the steep stone walls.

“When you’re in a car and in shackles, it definitely doesn’t look like this,” he told his fiancée, Karen Lee, who was watching his face warily for signs of PTSD.

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