Jan. 9, 2016 : 7:35 pm
By RICHARD STEIER
|A MORAL STAND WITH POLITICAL RISKS: Governor Cuomo, in granting clemency to Judith Clark (right) and making her eligible for parole more than 35 years after she took part in an armed robbery that led to the murders of two Nyack police officers and a Brink’s guard, cited her actions behind bars helping fellow inmates at the Bedford Hills prison and her renouncing her past radical beliefs and owning up to her guilt. Predictably, he has encountered an angry backlash from law-enforcement officials and some of the survivors of the three slain men.|
In the Aug. 29, 2003 edition of this newspaper, I concluded an editorial criticizing the parole of Kathy Boudin after serving 20 years for her role in the 1981 armed robbery of a Brink’s armored car in Rockland County that left two police officers and a Brink’s guard dead by writing that “the fact that she may have spiritually redeemed herself, in our opinion, is not reason enough to release her from prison. We believe it sends the wrong message about the extent to which this society values life to parole someone involved in such a horrific crime, regardless of the good work they may have done behind bars afterwards. That standard, we believe, should be applied whether the person involved in the killing is a former student radical from a well-to-do background or a cop who while drunk runs down an entire family. Let them find redemption behind bars and take what comfort they can from it. They do not deserve a chance at a new life outside.”
Those words were what made it unsettling five years ago to read a New York Times Magazine piece by Tom Robbins about Judith Clark, another radical gone haywire who had also been convicted in the Brink’s case. In many respects, her story of an activist who descended into politically-rationalized insanity closely paralleled Ms. Boudin’s. One fateful difference was that where Ms. Clark was the daughter of a working-class Brooklyn family with communist leanings, Ms. Boudin’s father, Leonard Boudin, was a prominent civil-rights attorney who was able to convince her that the only rational course to take was to plead guilty in return for a sentence that gave her a shot at parole after 20 years.
‘That’s Not a Black Revolutionary’
Ms. Clark disregarded her father when he visited her at the Rockland County jail, Mr. Robbins wrote. He excoriated her about some of her fellow defendants whose victims had been two Nyack cops, Sgt. Edward O’Grady and Officer Waverly Brown, as well as Brink’s guard Peter Paige, saying, “You want to talk about a black revolutionary? I’ll tell you who a black revolutionary is. It’s A. Philip Randolph, not these thugs. Not killing a black man,” referring to Officer Brown.
She was unwilling to show any contrition, and sealed her fate by getting a case of the screaming meemies during her trial, railing against a racist justice system. The judge in the case gave Mutulu Shakur, the man convicted of being the mastermind of the robbery plot, 60 years to life in prison; Ms. Clark, in what seemed to be more about her attitude than her role as a getaway driver, was sentenced to 75 years to life.
After sentencing, she remained a rage-filled, unrepentant revolutionary, and wound up being sentenced to two years in solitary confinement at the Bedford Hills prison for women after letters from her describing the prison’s layout were discovered that indicated she was trying to engineer an escape. It was during that period, Mr. Robbins wrote, that a conversation with Gilda Zwerman, a sociologist studying political activists who turned to violence, produced a startling awakening.
Ms. Zwerman, referring to Ms. Clark’s daughter Harriet, who had been 11 months old at the time of the Brink’s robbery, said to her, “I understand how you did this to yourself. What I don’t understand is how you did this to your daughter.”
When Ms. Clark began weeping in response, Mr. Robbins wrote, Ms. Zwerman told her, “You can’t cry for yourself and Harriet and not see that the children of the men who were killed cried the same way for their fathers.”
It produced a kind of epiphany for Ms. Clark: a quarter-century later she would tell Mr. Robbins during a prison interview, “I felt like I had taken off a layer of armor.”
Grew Dedicated to Helping
Thus stripped of her ability to blot out the consequences of her actions, she tried to make amends: she trained service dogs for work with law-enforcement agencies and to serve as companions to disabled veterans, she counseled inmates and prison officials alike on AIDS and how it could be transmitted, she persuaded local colleges to offer affordable courses to inmates, and got her master’s degree in psychology.
Robert Dennison, a former Parole Officer who belonged to the Conservative Party and served as Parole Board Chairman under Gov. George Pataki, was impressed enough by her during a meeting at which other inmates aired their grievances about parole denials that he later wrote in a letter to then-Gov. David Paterson that she was “the most-worthy candidate for clemency that I’ve ever seen.” He also noted in a subsequent interview with Mr. Robbins that given the sentences that others received, including two of the actual robbers who between them served just 13 years behind bars, “she sort of got left holding the bag.”
But Mr. Paterson declined to grant her clemency, later telling Times columnist Jim Dwyer that if he had, he feared being “tarred and feathered” by law-enforcement groups.
By the time I finished reading Mr. Robbins’s piece, I was having second thoughts about the words I’d penned in that 2003 editorial, at least as they pertained to Ms. Clark. At that point, she had spent more than 30 years behind bars. In the eyes of the law, the fact that she hadn’t participated in the robbery itself, hadn’t brandished a gun or pulled its trigger, was largely irrelevant: her role as a getaway driver made her an accessory to the three murders.
But given the sentences served by other players in the crime—and that Ms. Boudin by her own description had served as a “decoy” meant to lull cops into a false sense of security before her more-violent fellow revolutionaries started blasting—I experienced doubts about whether Ms. Clark deserved to spend the rest of her life in prison under a sentence which it seemed was made particularly severe because of her obnoxious behavior during the trial rather than based on the magnitude of what she did on that fateful day that began with the robbery in the Nanuet Mall.
Governor Cuomo seems to have also been forced to re-examine his ideas about the case as a result of what Ms. Clark has done with the past three decades of her life.
He is even more keenly attuned to the political winds than Mr. Paterson, and has been far more aligned with law-enforcement unions than the man he succeeded as Governor six years ago.
He had to know there would be political blowback from his decision to grant Ms. Clark clemency and commute her sentence to 35 years to life, making her eligible for parole later this year. It didn’t matter that she was just one of 113 names on the list of those to whom he granted some mercy in an announcement that was issued at the start of the New Year’s weekend, when it was less likely to cause a sensation among reporters who were preoccupied with happier events, including the Governor’s own participation in the long-delayed launch of the Second Avenue Subway.
The Times Magazine piece five years ago had made clear that some children of the slain men, as well as some of their former law-enforcement colleagues, remained adamantly opposed to a possible release of Ms. Clark based on her good works in prison.
A Perpetual Reminder
A nephew of Sergeant O’Grady who followed him into law enforcement, serving in the Rockland P.D., John Hanchar, told Mr. Robbins for that article of the toll his murder had taken on his widow, and spoke of passing the memorial sign near the entrance to the New York State Thruway every day while on patrol.
Edwin Day, a former NYPD Lieutenant who is now the Rockland County Executive, in that article described the murders as “like a permanent knife in the heart of the community; this never went away.”
And so Mr. Cuomo was under no illusions that even if the story wound up being initially obscured by the holiday weekend, it would slowly fade from the consciousness of law-enforcement officials.
Nor did the timing produce a temporary reprieve. Hours before New Year’s Eve, Sergeants Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins, the most-outspoken of the city’s police union leaders on this type of issue, in an interview with the Daily News blasted the Governor with the kind of words he until then had reserved for Mayor de Blasio.
‘A Complete Travesty’
Calling it “a complete travesty of the justice system,” Mr. Mullins called the Governor’s action “a slap in the face to the law-enforcement community” that would “not be forgotten by those who are paid to protect and serve…”
Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch, who has had a close relationship with the Governor, in a Jan. 6 statement didn’t criticize him by name but made clear he shared the disdain of Mr. Mullins for Ms. Clark’s cause.
He said 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. Allowing her to walk free would only stoke the flames of anti-police violence, which has already made 2016 the deadliest year for U.S. law enforcement in a half-decade.”
‘Can’t Let Bygones Be ...’
John Jay College Professor of Law and Police Studies Gene O’Donnell, who recalled attending the October 1981 funerals of Sergeant O’Grady and Officer Brown, which were held on the same day a couple of hours apart at nearby churches in Nyack, said in an email from Africa, “This was a premeditated, brutal killing that left three people dead, and if the people who engaged in this conduct do not deserve to forfeit huge chunks of their lives, then what is prison for? The Governor is advancing a rehabilitation argument, but quite a few people who have engaged in murderous acts are themselves good candidates for rehabilitation. The Governor seems to be saying, ‘Let bygones be bygones,’ thereby abdicating his role as someone who should explain and defend deserved penalties.”
He continued, “How many thousands of people have stronger arguments that they should be able to cut the line out of prison? And sadly [the clemency grant] proves that opposition to the death penalty would, as some predicted, lead, at least in cases like this, to a slippery slope that chips away at the very notion that the community has a right to hold [to account] those who flagrantly and maliciously engage in conduct that destroys human life.”
Elder Cuomo’s Stand
They were powerful arguments, the kind that Mr. Cuomo’s late father, Mario, heard during his own tenure as Governor, which besides his stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1984 and his decision to leave a plane to New Hampshire waiting on the tarmac rather than enter the 1992 race for President, is best remembered for his steadfast opposition to the death penalty.
No doubt that stance cost the elder Cuomo politically over the years. Mr. Pataki’s pledge during their 1994 faceoff that if elected he would reinstate capital punishment in New York was a key factor in his surprise victory that denied Mario Cuomo a fourth term as Governor.
Andrew Cuomo is often viewed as someone who’s a sharper politician than his father, partly because he rarely allows his principles to place him at odds with the prevailing public sentiment.
He became a hero to the gay-rights movement by steering the law permitting same-sex marriage to passage in Albany at a point when President Obama was still ambivalent on the subject, but it quickly became clear that support for it within the state outweighed the fervent opposition by a surprising margin.
He has shifted from presenting himself as a Governor willing to take on public-employee unions to one who increasingly has been a champion of causes dear to them, including pushing through a delayed $15-an-hour minimum wage less than a year after laughing at the idea that proponents had a prayer of getting such an increase through the State Legislature.
Followed Bernie’s Lead
Even his proposal last week to offer free tuition at the State and City University for students whose families make less than $125,000 a year seemed to have been propelled by the success Bernie Sanders had during his presidential run in connecting with voters on that issue (Mr. Sanders shared the stage and the spotlight when the Governor made the announcement at La Guardia Community College).
But clemency and a possible parole for Ms. Clark hardly looks like a political winner for the Governor, whether it’s in seeking re-election next year or making a White House run in 2020. Hillary Clinton’s aligning herself with the mothers of unarmed people who had been killed by police clearly hurt her among law-enforcement workers, though her decision to not even meet with the Fraternal Order of Police may have been as strong a signal that she didn’t regard cops as an important voting bloc. The number of voters who will shun Mr. Cuomo for trying to acknowledge Ms. Clark’s pulling the ideological blinders from her eyes and regaining her sense of direction is likely to outnumber those who will rally to him for doing so.
Perhaps that didn’t matter in this instance to someone who so often has been a creature of political calculation. Responding to the backlash over his making her eligible for release at age 67 during an unrelated press conference Jan. 4, he spoke of the impression Ms. Clark made on him during a secret meeting at Bedford Hills last September. Rather than try to minimize her culpability as someone who was just driving the getaway car and had no idea how far her comrades would go, he said, “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.”
Questions His Authority
The son of the Brink’s guard who was murdered, Michael Paige, had told the Daily News, “Who is Governor Cuomo to undo the sentence that was imposed 35 years ago?”
Mr. Cuomo didn’t say that such decisions are one of the basic functions of his job—one which he rarely invoked until recently, when criticism began to mount over his lack of pardons—but he noted, “Parole and parole hearings by definition are instituted so that a sentence can be adjusted, and that is what is going to happen here,” assuming the pressure that will mount does not prompt his appointees to the Parole Board to waver.
John Jay College President Jeremy Travis, a former high-ranking NYPD official in the administrations of Mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins who also served as Director of the National Institute of Justice under President Bill Clinton, in a Jan. 5 interview declined to comment on Ms. Clark’s case for parole. But he said of the Governor, “I was impressed by his willingness to understand her growth as a human being and her sense of responsibility for her actions.”
The argument I made at the tail end of my editorial more than 13 years ago against parole for individuals involved in horrific crimes, whether “a former student radical from a well-to-do background or a cop who while drunk runs down an entire family,” referred to Ms. Boudin and Joseph Gray, an ex-cop who two years earlier following an overnight tour in his Brooklyn precinct had engaged in a drinking binge that lasted more than 12 hours. Fortified by 18 beers, he headed back to his stationhouse that night for a few hours’ sleep before beginning another overnight tour and crashed his minivan into a pregnant 23-year-old, Maria Herrera, her 4-year-old son, and her 16-year-old sister. All three of them were killed, and her baby, delivered by emergency Caesarean section, died 13 hours later.
Only Served 10 Years
Mr. Gray, who had been a chronic alcohol-abuser long before that awful night, was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to 5-to-15 years in prison. He served 10 and then was paroled for good behavior.
No police-union officials from the city or any neighboring jurisdictions denounced his conduct at the time of the incident, or clamored a decade later for parole to be denied to him because his rehabilitation could not atone for the four lives he had directly taken, as surely as if he’d pulled a trigger. That is understandable, given their institutional roles, even if it creates the sense that those officials’ moral outrage is a bit too selective to have the weight it might otherwise in cases like the Brink’s robbery.
It is not that two wrongs make a right. It is just that a case such as Mr. Gray’s puts in perspective, when viewed objectively, the argument that having relinquished more than 35 years of freedom to the perverse idea that it was a revolutionary act to take part in an armed robbery might be sufficient punishment for a woman who, once cured of a sickness of the mind that had just as strong a pull on her as Mr. Gray’s alcoholism did on him, has done much to redeem herself.
Paroled or not, she will still have to live with the realization that came to her following 9/11 that, in the warped belief when she acted that her cause was just, she bore the same mindset and responsibility on a smaller scale as the terrorists had for the lives taken and the damage done to the victims’ families.
One Son’s Compassion
In the wake of the disclosure that she had received clemency Dec. 30, Sergeant O’Grady’s son, Edward O’Grady III, sent The Times an email in which he said he felt the pain of his loss every day, but “the release of Judith Clark will take no more away from me and will bring no more hurt to my life.” Referring to Ms. Clark’s now-36-year-old daughter, whose only memories of her mother are the product of her prison visits, he added, “If it brings an end to the suffering that Harriet has to deal with every day, then perhaps I can be happy for both of them, and I can assure you, I’ll still be able to sleep at night.”
Perhaps it was that generosity of spirit, so often invoked by Mario Cuomo during his career in politics and government, that Andrew was hoping to summon in making a controversial decision that most likely will cost him politically but may also soothe his soul.