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Dr. Mehmet Oz appears at a forum for Republican candidates for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in Camp Hill, Pa., on April 2, 2022. (AP) Dr. Mehmet Oz appears at a forum for Republican candidates for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in Camp Hill, Pa., on April 2, 2022. (AP)

Dr. Mehmet Oz appears at a forum for Republican candidates for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in Camp Hill, Pa., on April 2, 2022. (AP)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher August 3, 2022

Oz distorts Fetterman’s position of ending mandatory life sentences for certain murders

If Your Time is short

  • Fetterman has not called for eliminating life sentences for murders.

  • Fetterman advocates eliminating the Pennsylvania law  mandating life-without-parole sentences in second-degree or so-called felony murder cases, in which the defendant is an accessory to a murder.

  • In those cases, a person is killed during the commission of a felony, such as robbery, but the defendant is not directly responsible for the killing.

John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor and the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, has advocated for ending mandatory life sentences for what is known as felony murder. But he has not called for eliminating life sentences for all murders, despite a claim in a TV ad by physician and former TV talk show host Mehmet Oz, the Republican Senate nominee.

"Failed liberal policies are making us less safe," the narrator says in the ad, which was paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and approved by Oz. "Yet John Fetterman wants to release one-third of prisoners and eliminate life sentences for murderers."

PolitiFact rated Oz’s claim about releasing one-third of prisoners Mostly False. Fetterman has not called for that; he did highlight what he said was a comment by Pennsylvania’s former corrections secretary that the state’s prison population could be reduced by one-third without a risk to public safety.

Oz’s new claim about Fetterman wanting to "eliminate" life sentences for murders is similarly distorted.

The Nov. 8 matchup between Oz and Fetterman is rated by campaign watchers as "tilts Republican" and a toss-up. The outcome could decide which party controls the Senate, which is split 50-50.

Fetterman’s focus on second-degree murder

A national report highlighted Pennsylvania as one of nine states that mandate life-without-parole sentences for what is known as felony murder. 

Felony murder is holding a person liable for murder if the person participated in a felony that resulted in someone’s death. For example, if two people participated in a robbery in which a person was shot and killed, the person who did not do the shooting could be convicted of felony murder.

The March report from The Sentencing Project, a group that advocates against extreme punishments, found that more than 1,100 people in Pennsylvania were serving life-without-parole sentences for felony murder, which is classified as second-degree murder in the state.

In making the claim about life sentences, the Oz ad refers to a June 1, 2021, article in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, which describes itself as a news source on state government that also offers progressive commentary. The article notes Fetterman’s position in favor of eliminating life sentences for second-degree murder and quotes him at a town hall with reform advocates saying: "These folks are not Hannibal Lecter. These are individuals that may have been involved in a bad decision, terrible mistake, or something that they had no idea was going to occur."

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The National Republican Senatorial Committee did not offer more information to back the ad’s claim.

Fetterman repeatedly said in 2021 that the Pennsylvania law should be changed. He wrote about commissioning a report he said "clearly spelled out the need to abolish Pennsylvania's horrible and immoral practice" of mandatory life sentences for  second-degree murder.  

The law "ruins lives that could be rehabilitated while costing taxpayers billions and leaving them no safer as a result," he said when the report was released.

The report said that, as of Sept. 30, 2019, 1,166 people were in Pennsylvania prisons serving life-without-parole sentences for second-degree, or felony, murder. The accomplice in such cases "could have stood outside a convenience store as the lookout to a robbery that escalated into a death, driven the ‘get-away’ car, or helped to plan the felony with no idea that a gun or other weapon would be involved," the report said.

Fetterman’s campaign noted that a March 2020 York Daily Record news article paraphrased Fetterman as saying there are people who should die in prison because they've committed heinous crimes. He was quoted in that article saying, "Justice isn't giving somebody the equivalent sentence who was sitting outside in a getaway car to the individual that made the decision to shoot an innocent person."

The campaign also cited Fetterman’s votes on Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons, which he chairs, to deny clemency to people who sought a commutation of their life sentences. 

Our ruling

Oz said in an ad that Fetterman wants to "eliminate life sentences for murderers."

Fetterman has not called for eliminating life sentences for murder.

He has called for reversing Pennsylvania’s law that mandates life-without-parole sentences for second-degree murder, or so-called felony murder, for defendants who are accessories in a killing. In those cases, the defendants are involved in felony crimes, such as robbery, that result in a death, but they were not directly responsible for the killing. 

Oz’s claim contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False. 

RELATED: Fact-checking ads in the 2022 election campaigns

RELATED: Pennsylvania fact-checks

Our Sources, letter from Pennsylvania sheriffs to John Fetterman, July 28, 2022

York Daily Record, "Serving life without parole: Should you get life in prison even if you didn't 'pull the trigger?'" (via Nexis), March 1, 2020

Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, "Lifer Cases Granted Public Hearings  (1997 to Present)," June 7, 2022

Pennsylvania Capital-Star, "‘These folks are not Hannibal Lecter’: Push to reform Pa. second-degree murder statute continues," June 1, 2021

Daily Caller, "Pennsylvania Dem Senate Candidate Sought To Empty Prisons While In Power, Records Show," June 22, 2022

PolitiFact, "In Pennsylvania Senate race, Mehmet Oz distorts John Fetterman’s stance on releasing prison inmates," July 21, 2022

Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor, "Fetterman: Study Confirms Immediate Need For Reform Of Life Without Parole Sentences For Second-Degree ‘Felony’ Murder," March 26, 2021

Philadelphia Inquirer, "Oz is accusing Fetterman of being soft on crime. Some of his claims are inaccurate," published July 29, 2022, updated July 31, 2022 

Medium, "The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons is so important," Aug. 5, 2021

The Sentencing Project, "Felony Murder: An On-Ramp for Extreme Sentencing," published March 2022, updated April 2022, "Pa.’s second-degree murder charge is outdated, unfair, Fetterman says," published Feb. 12, 2021, updated Feb. 13, 2021

YouTube, Doctor Oz "Crazy Dangerous Ideas: John Fetterman" ad, July 28, 2022

National Republican Senatorial Committee, "NEW DR. OZ AD: John Fetterman’s ‘Crazy, Dangerous Ideas,’" July 28, 2022

Email, National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesperson Lizzie Litzow, Aug. 1, 2022

Email, John Fetterman campaign spokesperson Joe Calvello, Aug. 2, 2022

Washington Free Beacon, "Dem Senate Candidate Would Worsen Pennsylvania’s Crime Spike, Sheriffs Fear," July 28, 2022

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Oz distorts Fetterman’s position of ending mandatory life sentences for certain murders

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