The Record-Review – The official newspaper of Bedford and Pound Ridge, New York

 

Local voices seek clemency for Judith Clark

By NANCY DEXTER
SCOTT MULLIN PHOTO

Judy Clark, an inmate at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, is seeking clemency after 31 years in prison.

 

The underlying question in the case of inmate Judith Clark is how much time is enough to serve in prison for her involvement in the armed robbery of a Brinks truck in October 1981. Currently in her 31st year in prison, Ms. Clark has in many ways atoned for her actions, by all accounts undergoing a total character change while incarcerated. However, when she was initially brought before Judge David Ritter in Orange County court in 1983, after awaiting trial in prison for two years, her defiance was so extreme that he sentenced her to three consecutive terms of 25 years to life, essentially a life sentence.

During the Brinks’ robbery, which occurred in Nyack, two police officers and a guard were killed. Since she was a getaway driver, Ms. Clark’s role was secondary. While those responsible for shooting the three men are now either free or eligible for parole, Ms. Clark is not eligible for parole until 2056. She is now 62 years old. The judge handed down the maximum sentence because she showed no remorse and was defiant throughout the trial proceedings. The normal sentence for her role in the crime would be 25 to life. Based on her actions, he decided she could never be rehabilitated.

Since first meeting Ms. Clark in 1990, Suzanne Kessler, the vice provost and dean of liberal arts and sciences at Purchase College, has come to her defense and fought hard for her release. Ms. Kessler met Ms. Clark while working in an AIDS program in the prison.

“At that time, Judith decided to work to get out; she recognized that she should and could get out,” said Ms. Kessler. “She feels remorse and admits the horrible things she did. She went through a long rehabilitation process.”

“She works hard in prison,” said Ms. Kessler. “She has a busy schedule inside but still makes time to meet with people.” Noting the injustice of the situation, Ms. Kessler said, “All the others are out of jail, but she’s left symbolically standing while others move on.”

“No one would deny that she’s a different person. But what does that mean?” asked Ms. Kessler.

For some, particularly relatives of the deceased, the seriousness of the crime is the main issue, and whatever good Ms. Clark has done in prison will never be enough to atone for her crime, Ms. Kessler said.

Ms. Kessler noted that many representatives of the Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist and Protestant communities have met with Ms. Clark over the years, and that she is greatly admired.

Another advocate for the clemency cause is Katherine Vockins, who has known Ms. Clark for 10 years having worked with her in the Rehabilitation Through the Arts program at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

“I use the arts to transform how people think,” Ms. Vockins said.

Having interacted with Ms. Clark in this program, Ms. Vockins said she is convinced that she is totally rehabilitated. “I know her as a human being. I know what she did, and I know that she’s remorseful. All she has done has been to benefit her peers. She is responsible for programs for women to become better human beings.”

“She is a generous, open-hearted, compassionate individual working hard to change the lives of women within the prison,” Ms. Vockins said. “After 30 plus years, she’s not who she was.” She wonders how best to define when rehabilitation occurs, and how best to track what inmates have done inside the prison to transform themselves.

Ms. Vockins said that the people most affected by the deaths during the robbery are bitter. “They are not healed to put up such resistance,” she said.

Rabbi Arik Wolf, leader of the Chabad congregation in Bedford Hills, has known Ms. Clark for about five or six years.

“I admire her and the person she’s become, what she does in prison,” Rabbi Wolf said. “She’s one of the most incredible and evolved people I’ve ever met. She’s very unique.”

“She has so much to give if she could live in the real world,” said Rabbi Wolf. “In terms of her character, she is the ideal candidate for clemency. She is a role model in the prison.”

Other influential letter-writers and advocates for Ms. Clark include Robert Dennison, retired chairman of the New York State Board of Parole; Elaine Lord, retired superintendent at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility; and Norma Hill, a victim whose car was commandeered by one of the Brinks’ robbers.

Since her incarceration at Bedford Hills, Ms. Clark has developed many interests and accomplishments. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree in behavioral sciences in 1990, followed by a Masters degree in psychology in 1993. She also served as a staffer in a nursery program, teaching pre-natal parenting classes to pregnant women, while becoming a role model and mentor for nursing mothers living with their babies in a special unit. During the 1980s, she educated other prisoners about the HIV/AIDS epidemic within the prison, co-founding an organization duplicated at other prisons around the country. She has also authored a book, “Breaking the Walls of Silence: AIDS and Women in a New York State Maximum Security Prison.”

During the 1990s she worked to rebuild a prison college program after funding was eliminated, enabling 150 women to receive associate or bachelor degrees in the last 10 years.

Ms. Clark also participates in the Puppies Behind Bars program. She has already raised eight puppies into dogs trained to help the blind, detect explosives or serve disabled veterans. Her poetry has been published in The New Yorker and other publications, she won the 1995 PEN Prison Poetry Writing Award, and her scholarly essays have been published in various journals. Most recently, Judy completed her certification to become a chaplain. She was raised in the radical secular Jewish faith, and has become immersed in religious studies and pastoral training. Ms. Kessler expects that if Ms. Clark is released, she will become a chaplain and continue helping and serving others.

During her incarceration, Ms. Clark has maintained a close relationship with her daughter, Harriet, who was only 11 months old when her mother was arrested. Ms. Clark’s father brought the child to the prison many times over the years. Harriet, who is now 32 years old, was educated at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, followed by Stanford University in California and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She currently resides in California and is a postgraduate writing fellow at Stanford University in Palo Alto.

In a two-page document called the “Summary for Clemency Candidate Judith Clark,” Harriet discussed their relationship. Judy “has spent the last two decades working to become the mother she wants me to have, the woman she first set out to be. It is a process she initiated largely out of a responsibility to me and it is the course by which she has faced a far greater sense of responsibility and the implications of these responsibilities.

“Judy’s sentence of 75 years to life is not commensurate with her secondary role in the crime,” Harriet wrote. “Rather, it is a result of her conduct during the trial. In contrast to many of the defendants who were represented by attorneys … Judy used the trial to defend her politics. She waived her right to an attorney, remained absent from the trial, and waived her right to appeal.” Ms. Clark first publicly renounced her crime in 1994, and issued a public apology to the victims in 2001.

Ms. Kessler spoke about her hopes for Ms. Clark’s clemency. “Redemption is a big piece of religion,” she said. “Religion is a framework for change.”

According to Ms. Kessler, the only legal option available for Ms. Clark is to receive clemency from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. She said she hopes that Mr. Cuomo will be braver than his predecessor, Gov. David Patterson, who refused to grant clemency.

“The recourse is for the governor to take a brave stand,” Ms. Kessler said. “Gov. Cuomo may have the courage to do the right thing. He doesn’t always do what’s popular.” Ms. Kessler pointed out that the governor has inherited a large file full of letters supporting clemency for Ms. Clark, and there will be more letters to come. Among others who wrote a letter on Ms. Clark’s behalf was Rev. William Weisenbach, former pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Katonah.

To educate community members about the ongoing situation, a special event is planned for Thursday, Nov. 1, at 7:30 p.m., at the Katonah Memorial House, 71 Bedford Road in Katonah. Community members are strongly encouraged to bring friends, to learn more about the case, and to write in support of clemency for Judith Clark. Featured speakers are Sara Bennett, Ms. Clark’s attorney; Tom Robbins, the reporter whose article about the case appeared in The New York Times Magazine in January 2012; and Rabbi Arik Wolf of the Bedford Hills Chabad.

All are welcome to attend. The organizers are seeking increased support, hoping that a growing file of letters to Gov. Cuomo will eventually bring positive results for Ms. Clark. For more information about Ms. Clark’s case, visit www.judithclark.org.


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October 26, 2012

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