Lt. Gov. John Fetterman on Monday stood behind his defense of a Lebanon County woman who has cervical and ovarian cancer and was sentenced to at least 10 months in prison for a $109 shoplifting offense. The District Attorney’s Office said the punishment was calculated based on this offense plus her prior record, but Fetterman believes it too harsh.
“This isn’t a case where they’re going to have to wheel her out in a gurney dressed like Hannibal Lecter. She’s a convicted shoplifter,” Fetterman said Monday. “I don’t know why it’s in anyone’s best interest to deny her the opportunity to consult with her oncologist.”
Ashley Via Menser, 36, was sentenced for the 2018 shoplifting offense on Jan. 22, the same day she was scheduled to meet with her doctor to discuss treatment options, according to PA Post, an online news organization. Menser’s sentence reflected her current offense and criminal record as well as her history of drug abuse, District Attorney Pier Hess Graf said in a letter obtained by Harrisburg’s ABC27.
In an interview with The Inquirer on Monday, Fetterman said he had “no interest in getting in a shoving match” with the District Attorney’s Office, but felt compelled to speak out because he thinks it is wrong for petty theft and a history of drug abuse to interfere with anyone’s ability to talk with their doctors.
“We’re not running her for mayor,” Fetterman said. “I just want her to get visited by her oncologist.”
In response to the PA Post story, Fetterman took to Twitter on Friday to voice his disappointment with the sentence. He offered to pay the $109 to the Weis grocery store where Menser shoplifted and even posted a picture of a check.
Hess Graf defended the court’s sentence. “Our lieutenant governor found it appropriate to criticize the court and the victim [Weis]; he went so far as to offer a personally delivered check for the underlying amount to the victim to absolve the defendant of the crime. He failed to mention in any of his tweets, however, the extensive prior record of the defendant, her drug abuse, or the fact that her sentencing ranges — as set forth by the legislature — call for jail time,” she wrote.
In any sentencing, courts depend on a “pre-set sentencing range” that is determined by the defendant’s current charge and prior record. Menser’s sentencing range called for between six and 16 months of jail time, Hess Graf wrote.
Menser’s criminal record includes 13 theft convictions, welfare fraud, and endangering the welfare of children, according to the letter. The letter also points to Menser’s history of drug abuse.
“The sentence was appropriate in light of the sentencing range before the court,” Hess Graf told The Inquirer.
Fetterman, who is chair of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons and has pushed for clemency for people serving excessive sentences, said he has seen many cases where drug use contributed to petty crime. He urged the district attorney and the courts to “err on the side of mercy.”
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