A Chance of Freedom? New Bill Could Release 1,000 People Sentenced to Life in PA Prisons
Aaron Moselle - September 16, 2019
Tom Schilk didn’t see the tourist he had stripped naked and bound fall from the third floor of his West Philadelphia apartment building.
He was in another unit, two floors down.
“We heard a bang and we went out front and [Felix] Davila was lying on the pavement. He was really damaged,” said Schilk.
This was 1984. Schilk lured Davila to his property with the false promise of a sexual encounter, an improvised ruse to rob him. Schilk left him alone and, suddenly, the 35 year-old teacher from Baton Rouge was dead and no one knew exactly what happened.
Schilk tried to hide the body by wrapping it in a blanket and putting it in the garbage. He then fled the city, but was ultimately caught by the F.B.I.
During his two-week jury trial in 1986, prosecutors conceded that Schilk didn’t kill Davila that December morning.
It didn’t save him any prison time. In addition to robbery and kidnapping, Schilk was convicted of second-degree murder, which triggers a mandatory life sentence in Pennsylvania — the same as first-degree murder convictions.
“I know I can never really re-balance the scales. The harm I’ve done is irreparable. I realize that,” said Schilk, 59, over a crackly phone line from State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County. “But I would like to try to do good. I would like to help people.”
Three decades after his trial, Schilk hopes he will have a chance to see the light of day.
State Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) recently reintroduced a controversial bill that would give more than 1,000 state inmates serving life sentences for murder a shot at getting released.
It would be a big shift.
For more than forty years, life sentences in Pennsylvania have only come one way: without the possibility of parole.
“For the people who deserve to remain in prison, my bill does nothing to say that they will be released. It simply gives the Board of Probation and Parole the ability to sort it out,” said Street.
Under the bill, people convicted of first-degree murder — intentionally killing another person — would be eligible for parole after serving 35 years.
People convicted of second-degree murder — participating in a crime that ended someone’s life, for instance, being a getaway driver — would have to wait 25 years.
Currently, there are 546 first-degree lifers and 519 second-degree lifers who would be immediately eligible.
For inmates and their families, the measure would be a gift, a godsend.
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