Jan. 9, 2016 : 7:35 pm
By BOB HENNELLY and MARK TOOR
|JUDITH CLARK: Does redeemed life warrant pardon?|
The president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association excoriated Governor Cuomo for commuting the prison sentence of a woman involved in the 1981 robbery of a Brink’s armored car in Rockland County that left two police officers and a Brink’s guard dead.
Mr. Cuomo’s action reduced the 75-year-to-life sentence of Judith Clark, 67, to 35 to life, so that she will be eligible to appear before the parole board in the first quarter of this year. Otherwise, the Governor’s Office said, “she would be 106 years old before she becomes eligible for parole.”
His Press Office announced the action Dec. 30, halfway down a 54-paragraph press release about more than 100 pardons and sentence commutations. It brought back the memories and emotions of an era when the U.S. establishment was under attack, sometimes violently, by radical groups of young people.
‘A Complete Travesty’
“This is inexcusable, a complete travesty of the justice system,” the SBA president, Edward D. Mullins, said in a statement the following day. “This was a vicious, vile and heinous crime, and three good men with families were murdered for doing their jobs. To this day, those family members bear the weight of the death of their loved ones, while Judith Clark gets to resume her life.
“I can’t imagine what Governor Cuomo was thinking when he made this decision, but it is a slap in the face to the law-enforcement community. It will not be forgotten by those who are paid to protect and serve, often with little or no support from elected officials.”
Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch focused his anger on Ms. Clark, saying that her involvement in the murders “not only deprived three families of husbands, fathers and sons—it was an attack on the rule of law and the safety of all New Yorkers. No amount of rehabilitation by Ms. Clark can undo that damage.”
Law-enforcement groups were expected to oppose the commutation and Ms. Clark’s upcoming parole bid. Rockland County Executive Ed Day, a retired NYPD Lieutenant, said, “The blood of Nyack Police Sgt. Edward
O’Grady, Officer Waverly ‘Chipper’ Brown and Brinks guard Peter Paige will be on her hands until the day she dies. Judith Clark is a domestic terrorist. Her only place in a civilized society is behind bars.”
He and the Rockland County Police Benevolent Association held a rally Jan. 4 calling for her to remain in prison.
A Life Transformed?
But Ms. Clark’s defenders—including Elaine Lord, the retired Superintendent of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, where Ms. Clark has spent more than 35 years—say she has turned her life around and been of service to fellow inmates and the general public, and deserves parole.
“I watched her change into one of the most perceptive, thoughtful, helpful and profound human beings that I have ever known, either inside or outside of a prison,” Ms. Lord wrote to Gov. David Paterson in 2010.
Mr. Cuomo, questioned by reporters at an unrelated event Jan. 4, discussed a meeting he had with Ms. Clark in September that led to his decision to issue clemency.
“Many people had recommended clemency for Judith Clark: bar-association presidents, prison Superintendents, lawyers, right across the board,” he said. “But the crime she was charged with was very serious, so I wanted to meet with her myself and get a sense of her myself. There were questions that I wanted answered, and that’s what I did. And she is a very impressive person…”
Didn’t Minimize Her Guilt
He said he had thought her position might be that “she was only the getaway driver, right, she was driving a car. She didn’t pull any trigger. So I assumed her first answer would be a ‘I didn’t kill anyone,’ and, by the way, the people who actually pulled the trigger are already out of prison, believe it or not. She was just the car driver. I thought that was going to be her answer, minimize her involvement. It wasn’t.
“She went the exact opposite way and she talked about her sorrow and her complicity, why she did it and how she had gotten wrapped up in this movement as a young child and really believed in it and was passionate about it. And I found her very impressive overall and I think she is going to be impressive to the Parole Board.”
Asked about contentions by Sergeant Mullins and others that his decision was a slap in the face to law enforcement and that he should not undo the sentence imposed by the court, Mr. Cuomo said, “Parole and parole hearings by definition are instituted so that a sentence can be adjusted, and that is what is going to happen here...I am a 100-percent supporter of law enforcement.”
Cites Her Rehabilitation
The announcement from his office said, “While at Bedford Hills, Clark has made exceptional strides in self-development. She earned a Bachelor’s Degree and a Master’s Degree from Mercy College and has an extensive prison programming record including teaching prenatal parenting courses in the Nursery Program, founding an HIV/AIDS education program, training service dogs in the Puppies Behind Bars program, and serving as a college tutor. Further, she has maintained a perfect disciplinary record and lives in honor housing.”
Her achievements in prison did not mollify critics of the Governor’s decision.
Rockland County Sheriff Louis Falco said Mr. Cuomo should have met with the families of the three men slain in the robbery. “Somehow the families of these officers have become a postscript,” he said in a statement.
But Sergeant O’Grady’s son, Edward J. O’Grady III, took a more-measured view in a letter to the New York Times, writing, “The release of Judith Clark will take no more away from me and will bring no more hurt to my life.”
“I don’t understand how one person, Governor Cuomo, gets to commute the sentence of a criminal who murdered three men, my father and two police officers,” Mr. Paige’s son Michael, a New Jersey lawyer, told the Daily News. “Who is Governor Cuomo to undo the sentence that was imposed 35 years ago?”
Radical From Childhood
As a young woman, Ms. Clark, the daughter of American Communist Party members, belonged to or worked with radical groups including Students for a Democratic Society, the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s. She continued her protest activities as these groups disbanded or faded away.
She was one of six men and two women involved in the robbery of $1.6 million from a Brink’s truck at the Nanuet Mall on Oct. 20, 1981. Mr. Paige was killed and another guard, Joseph Trombino, was seriously wounded. Driving away, the robbers ran into a police roadblock, and Officer Brown and Sergeant O’Grady were shot to death in the ensuing gun battle. Ms. Clark, who was not part of the actual robbery but drove a getaway vehicle, was stopped by police. Her daughter, Harriet, was 11 months old at the time.
Ms. Clark and two men implicated in the killings were tried together and insisted on representing themselves, but because of disruptive behavior were barred from the courtroom. Ms. Clark was sentenced to 75 years to life by a judge who said it appeared she would never reform. Only one other robber, David Gilbert, received a term that long.
Boudin Released in ’03
The second woman, Kathy Boudin, daughter of a prominent New York City lawyer, drove another getaway vehicle that was stopped by the roadblock. She was represented by a private attorney and worked out a plea-bargain that gave her 20 years to life. She was released in 2003 and now teaches at the Columbia University School of Social Work.
Ms. Clark told the New York Times Magazine in 2012 that she entered prison with the same anger that had driven her participation in the robbery. But her outlook changed in 1986 during two years she spent in solitary confinement for plotting an escape.
“Someone said something to her that finally broke through to her,” the article said. “Gilda Zwerman, a sociologist who was studying violence-prone activists, didn’t mince words. ‘I understand how you did this to yourself,’ she told Clark. ‘What I don’t understand is how you did this to your daughter.’
“Clark tried to look defiant, but her lip twitched, and she began to quietly weep. Zwerman nudged her further. ‘You can’t cry for yourself and Harriet,’ she said, ‘and not see that the children of the men who were killed cried the same way for their fathers.’”