Advocates say first inmate to die in state prison from COVID-19 was innocent

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — A 67-year-old inmate at SCI Phoenix in Skippack, who was serving a life sentence, was the first to die from COVID-19 across the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections system. But his lawyers say he was fighting to prove his innocence.

The inmate, Rudolph Sutton, died on April 8. He served 30 years in prison in connection with a homicide, but he maintained his innocence from the very beginning.

“Not only is it a tragedy when anyone dies of this virus, but Mr. Sutton will never have a chance to clear his name,” said Nilam Sanghvi, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.

The group identified Sutton in a statement on Tuesday. Sanghvi said they worked with Sutton and his two co-defendants since at least 2013 to get post-conviction relief. 

Sanghvi was hopeful the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office would review their claim — they also filed for a sentence commutation — but now, Sutton will never get his day in court. 

“The courts need to act really ASAP so that people who are innocent, people with vulnerable health conditions, are released,” added PIP Executive Director Nan Feiler.

On Tuesday, city officials announced the first coronavirus-related death in the Philadelphia prison system: a 48-year-old woman. Advocates identified her Yvonne Harris, who was serving a three-year sentence for assault and other crimes. 

Philadelphia Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney said Harris was not eligible for expedited release to prevent the spread of COVID-19. According to court files, Harris was slated for parole in August.