Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500.
– Apocalypse Now
Over the past ten years, I’ve developed a friendship with Commer Glass, a 67-year-old African American man serving his 37th year of a life-without-parole sentence at Graterford State Prison outside Philadelphia. Glass fought as a 20-year-old combat infantryman in the thick woods west of Pleiku in the famous 1965 battle of the Ia Drang Valley. It was in the Ia Drang that US troops first went mano a mano with the North Vietnamese Army.
An NVA commander described the battle from the Vietnamese point of view this way: The order went down to the North Vietnamese soldiers to get close enough to the Americans to “grab them by their belt buckles.”
It was a horrific battle by anyone’s standards. There was a Mel Gibson movie made from a book about the battle titled We Were Soldiers Once … And Young by retired General Harold Moore and journalist Joseph Galloway.
To me, Glass is a casualty of that battle and of that unfortunate, tragic war just as certain as night follows day and rain makes things wet.
The story is complicated by a number of things. One, Glass is a black man in prison for first degree murder involving the killing of a woman, and in Pennsylvania, especially in the cover-one’s-ass political climate of Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, he is a hot potato. There are not very many profiles in courage in Pennsylvania when it comes to someone like Glass. It’s much easier — and safer — to just let him rot in Graterford.
I’m involved with a grassroots group working with the Pennsylvania Prison Society seeking the release of Glass and other Vietnam veterans like Glass who are serving life-without-parole sentences in Pennsylvania, one of the rare states in the union that has absolutely no parole for lifers. You die in lock-up unless your sentence is commuted by the governor.
Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell could have commuted Glass’ sentence as he left office in January 2011, but he declined to do so. He did commute several others. Rendell worked as a Philadelphia district attorney in the 1970s and began his political career by running for District Attorney in Philadelphia two years after Glass was convicted under DA Emmett Fitzpatrick. Rendell ran on an anti-corruption platform and called for getting tougher on murder cases by pursuing death sentences and, of course, life-without-parole…