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Pennsylvania Judge Verdict: A Potential Death Sentence for Shoplifting Conviction

by Ed Lyon

Thirty-six-year-old Ashley Via Menser of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, is battling both cervical and ovarian cancer from prison after being convicted and sentenced in January 2020 for shoplifting $109.63 worth of groceries.

As her case progressed through court, her cancer progressed, too. She was scheduled for an oncology appointment at Hershey Medical Center on the afternoon of January 22, 2020, prior to having a hysterectomy to remove the aggressively encroaching cancer. Without the surgery, Menser’s prognosis was dire: She would be dead inside of a month.

“She has no choice, it’s life or death,” said her mother, Stephanie Bashore. “The doctors sat there and told us this.”

But first Menser had to face a judge for sentencing on her conviction of shoplifting from a Weis Markets store in September 2018. Her lawyer, Robert Scot Feeman, had high hopes that Lebanon County Common Pleas Court Judge Samuel A. Kline would delay or defer sentencing in the case so that Menser could keep her medical appointment

Judge Kline was unswayed, sentencing Menser to state prison for a term of 10 months to seven years. Bashore said the sentence left her daughter in shock.

“She’s just sitting there, all upset because she thinks she’s going to die in jail,” Bashore said.

Eight days later, on January 31, 2020, Pennsylvania Lt. Governor John Fetterman took to Twitter on Menser’s behalf, calling on Kline to grant Menser mercy. He also promised to take a check for $110 to Weis Markets to cover the cost of the food Menser stole, adding that he did not believe the grocer would agree with what was transpiring in this case. Weis Markets made no statement.

As of February 3, 2020 – two weeks after her missed pre-surgical appointment – Menser had yet to be seen even by a prison nurse or doctor, much less an oncologist, according to her family. Judge Kline had directed her moved to a state prison “promptly” in order to receive health care. Lebanon County Correctional Facility Warden Robert J. Karnes would not comment on Menser’s health care due to privacy laws. County Chief Clerk Jamie Wolgemuth said that jail medical policy was set by PrimeCare, the jail’s private healthcare contractor.

On February 6, 2020, Judge Kline denied Menser’s motion for a sentence reduction, ruling that “defendant has failed to provide additional information which would effect the decision of the Court.” In accordance with his earlier directive, Menser was moved to the State Correctional Institute in Muncy.

Lebanon County prosecuting attorney Pier Hess Graf responded to Fetterman’s tweets by defending Kline’s sentencing in the case, pointing to prior non-violent convictions on Menser’s record – a total of 13 for shoplifting as well as welfare fraud and endangering the welfare of children.

“I felt it necessary to respond, given the lack of factual information, which seem to permeate the majority of comments, articles or ‘tweets’ about Ms. Menser and her case,” Graf said.

The prosecutor did not recite any facts from Menser’s medical record, such as her nine-year battle with ovarian cancer nor a diagnosis for post-traumatic stress disorder for which she had been taking prescribed medication for years.

A 2016 estimate by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics said cancer contributed to 22 percent of all U.S. prisoner deaths. It is the leading cause of death in Pennsylvania’s state prison system.

Fetterman has so far not yet asked Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) to grant a pardon in the case. 



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