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Justice System

Pa. prisoner won compassionate release, but in critical condition after delay

by Danielle Ohl of Spotlight PA |

Portrait of Ezra Bozeman
Courtesy of Christine Roess

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UPDATE (June 3): Ezra Bozeman died on Saturday, June 1 at UPMC Altoona. Despite objections by the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office that cast doubt on his prognosis, Bozeman lived only about two weeks after leaving prison. He was 68 years old.

HARRISBURG — On Monday morning, an Allegheny County judge granted compassionate release for Ezra Bozeman, one of Pennsylvania’s oldest and longest-serving prisoners, whose plea for better medical care garnered the rare support of a sitting governor.

With Judge Susan Evashavik DiLucente’s permission, Bozeman can now leave prison and go to a long-term treatment facility that will provide specialized care for his quadriplegia and bone-deep bed sore.

But after nearly 50 years of incarceration, it is unclear if Bozeman will have the freedom his family and advocates fought for. In the early morning before his hearing, Bozeman’s breathing worsened and prison staff at SCI Laurel Highlands transferred him to a nearby hospital.

Bozeman’s fiance Christine Roess, who was instrumental in gaining Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s support for his petition, received a call from the prison around midnight Monday morning, she said, just hours before the second hearing in his request for release.

“He was unconscious when he arrived at the hospital,” she said. Bozeman is now on a ventilator at UPMC Somerset.

Bozeman’s transfer was delayed a week by opposition from the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office during a hearing on May 14.

Deputy District Attorney Ronald Wabby, Jr. objected to supporting documents that Bozeman’s attorneys submitted, including medical records, a letter from his neurosurgeon, and Bozeman’s own affidavit of his condition, calling them hearsay.

Wabby asked the defense to call witnesses to attest to their validity, including Bozeman, who has difficulty speaking due to his condition. Evashavik DiLucente told the court she was inclined to approve Bozeman’s petition, but agreed to hear testimony.

But after a conference in chambers on Monday, Evashavik DiLucente approved the petition without hearing from Bozeman’s neurosurgeon, who had been prepared to testify.

During the conference, Wabby continued to oppose the petition, according to Bozeman’s attorneys.

A spokesperson for the district attorney’s office, in response to a request for comment, said Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala would address the matter more fully once DiLucente files her ruling in the case.

Bozeman had been incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prisons since 1975 when he was tried and convicted of killing Morris Weitz, 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 provided support services for other incarcerated individuals, completed college courses, and met Roess.

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’s survey 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.

Bozeman suffered from pinched nerves in his spine, he wrote in late 2022, a condition that was wrongly diagnosed for years and went untreated 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 to prison led to complications and, ultimately, quadriplegia.

While at SCI Laurel Highlands, Bozeman developed a serious, bone-deep bed sore that worsened his health issues.

Should Bozeman’s condition stabilize, he will be transferred to a long-term care facility where he will receive treatment and remain under the supervision of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, said Rupalee Rashatwar, one of Bozeman’s attorneys.

Under state law, incarcerated individuals who are released on medical transfer can still be recalled to prison if their condition improves.

But that could also change for Bozeman, who has asked the Board of Pardons to recommend that Shapiro commute his life sentence.

Last week, the board approved his application for a public hearing for commuting his sentence by a vote of four to one, with Attorney General Michelle Henry voting against. At the public hearing stage, Bozeman will need all five board members, including Henry, to approve his application in order for it to move on to Shapiro.

Spotlight PA has reached out to Henry’s office for comment.

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