Delaware County DA agrees to release lifer after reviving old charges to keep him jailed

  • Laura Benshoff/WHYY

For the second time in less than a week, David Sheppard, 54, learned he would walk free after decades in prison.

At a bail hearing Monday in Delaware County, attorneys announced they had reached an agreement that Sheppard should be released without bail on decades-old shoplifting charges that threatened to keep him jailed even after he received a rare commutation from the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons.

“This case has never been about incarcerating the defendant,” but about making sure victims’ voices are included in criminal justice reforms, said Delaware County Senior Deputy District Attorney Daniel McDevitt during the hearing.

When the agreement was announced, Sheppard turned to smile at the more than 15 family members quietly celebrating in the courtroom behind him before a sheriff’s deputy blocked his view and motioned him to look forward.

His case — which attracted celebrity attention — exposed tensions between criminal justice reforms aimed at curtailing extreme punishments and the resistance of some prosecutors who say the rights of victims are lost amid those changes.

Sheppard has served 25 years of a life term in state prison for assisting in the robbery of Love’s Pharmacy, during which a co-conspirator shot and killed owner Thomas Brannan in the Overbrook neighborhood of Philadelphia in 1992. In Pennsylvania, an accomplice to a felony that results in death can also be charged with murder and confers an automatic life sentence.

Pa. Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman speaks to the press after Sheppard’s hearing.

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Pa. Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman speaks to the press after Sheppard’s hearing.

On December 4th, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf commuted Sheppard’s sentence. Even before the order was signed, Delaware County District Attorney Katayoun Copeland signaled her intention to keep Sheppard locked up, reviving an old warrant in a decades-old shoplifting case to send a message.

“This is one of the problems with the current climate of the criminal justice system: Convicted felons are being empowered and extended leniency at the direct expense of victims and their families,” she said in a press release.

Brannan’s daughter, Evelyn Brannan Tarpey, joined her sister on the courthouse steps in Media to criticize the commutation process. She said no attempts were made to contact her or other family members about Sheppard’s commutation.

“I have lived in the same house for 40 years and had the same phone number. It would have been easy to find me,” said Brannan Tarpey.

Delaware Count District Attorney Katayoun Copeland (left) and Evelyn Brannan Tarpy (right), said the family of Thomas Brannan was not notified of David Sheppard’s commutation.

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Delaware Count District Attorney Katayoun Copeland (left) and Evelyn Brannan Tarpy (right), said the family of Thomas Brannan was not notified of David Sheppard’s commutation.

In addition to Sheppard’s case, Wolf commuted eight other life sentences last week, bringing the total during his time in office to 19, a dramatic increase compared to previous decades.

Lt. Governor John Fetterman, who chairs the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, strongly criticized Copeland’s actions, but came to Delaware County to speak to members of Brannan’s family.

“Using a 30-year-old charge was the wrong way to go about having a conversation,” said Fetterman. “I’m glad Mr. Sheppard gets to go home, and I’m sorry this whole thing happened, meaning a life was lost.”

Sheppard is still facing shoplifting charges, but Fetterman said he believes the prosecution will ultimately be dropped. Copeland, a Republican, lost a re-election bid in November to Democrat Jack Stollsteimer, who campaigned on ending private operation of the county jail and reducing the penalties for possessing a small amount of marijuana. He will be sworn in January 6.

Outside the courthouse, Devin Sheppard, David’s son, said his family was frustrated with the delay but understood the reasons behind it.

“They did it for the victims, they felt like the victims weren’t getting enough recognition … but at the same time, we want our dad here with us the same way they want their dad there with them,” he said.

Defense attorney Max Orenstein has requested that Sheppard be released on Monday night.


Keystone Crossroads is a statewide reporting collaborative of WITF, WPSU and WESA, led by WHYY. This story originally appeared at https://whyy.org/programs/keystone-crossroads.

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