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A Not-So-Surprising Surprise

Andrew Cuomo at a podium
N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Photo courtesy the New York National Guard.

In New York state government, very little happens without the tacit or explicit consent of the governor – especially the notoriously hands-on Gov. Andrew Cuomo. So it was more than a little surprising when the state parole board denied early release to Judith Clark.

As I explained in a post earlier this year, Clark was convicted for her involvement in the October 1981 Brink’s robbery in Rockland County, New York. She drove one of a pair of getaway vehicles used in the incident that resulted in the deaths of a Brink’s guard and two police officers; another guard was seriously injured. At trial, Clark refused representation by counsel and defiantly told the jury that revolutionary violence was a “liberating force.”

The Board of Parole noted in its recent review of Clark’s case that the Brink’s robbery was a culmination of her longer pattern of violence and criminal activity. The board said that Clark had been “attracted to violence to demonstrate total commitment to revolutionary ideas” for over a decade prior to the robbery and cited her prior criminal record in Illinois, which included aggravated battery, aiding escape and mob action.

Cuomo made Clark eligible for parole this year by commuting her 75-year-to-life sentence. Had Cuomo not acted, Clark would not have been eligible for parole until 2056, at the age of 106.

Parole board appointees owe their positions to whichever governor appointed them to their renewable six-year terms, so some observers may have been surprised when the parole board seemed to act against the governor in declining to release Clark. But the reaction from the governor’s office was a tellingly low-key statement, affirming the governor’s original commutation but otherwise remaining fairly neutral on the outcome. Dani Lever, a spokeswoman for the governor, said, “Judith Clark deserved the opportunity to make her case for parole based on her extensive prison programming, her perfect disciplinary record while incarcerated, and impressive self-development over the past 35 years. The commutation afforded her that opportunity and we respect the parole board’s decision.”

There may be less to this “surprise” outcome than meets the eye.

If Cuomo had felt strongly enough that Clark should be freed, he could have commuted her sentence to time served and had her released immediately. He didn’t; instead, he punted the issue to the parole board. So when family members of the victims, as well as law enforcement generally, raised a predictable outcry against Clark’s potential release, Cuomo avoided most of the heat.

That is not a bad outcome if you are two-term governor eyeing a possible presidential run in 2020, who might first want to seek re-election in New York in 2018. Cuomo’s gesture to Clark could appeal to a liberal Democratic base, some of whom might decry Clark’s methods without being altogether hostile to her anti-capitalist, anti-Western bombast at the time of her trial. Yet by handling the decision in the way he did, Cuomo avoided getting crosswise with independents and moderates who don’t think the families of the uniformed men who died that day should have to see Clark resuming ordinary life as a free woman.

Perhaps most especially, the governor’s choice means nobody has to see Clark publicly rehabilitated in the way her co-conspirator Kathy Boudin has been. Bad enough Boudin holds a faculty position at Columbia University. It is unimaginably galling that the Ivy League institution’s website presents her as the “co-director and co-founder of the Center for Justice at Columbia University.” Boudin is further presented as an expert on the “causes and consequences of mass incarceration” and in “the development of strategies ... to deal with the day-to-day damage the system has caused.”

What some call “mass incarceration” is a legitimate topic of discussion. But the mass of inmates is incarcerated one at a time. In Boudin’s case, her real-world experiences with the causes of incarceration consist of blowing up a Manhattan town house, driving the getaway car in an armored truck robbery, and acting as part of a conspiracy that left a security guard and two police officers dead. One such academic luminary is one too many for the victims’ families to contemplate; potentially adding Clark would have inevitably compounded their justified outrage.

We can already see how Cuomo’s strategy played out in the fact that both Clark’s supporters and those who prefer she stay where she is can now focus mainly on the parole board’s decision, rather than on the commutation that allowed it in the first place.

As for Cuomo, is he personally disappointed or satisfied with the result of Clark’s parole hearing? We may get a hint in the next few months, when one of the three parole board members who considered Clark’s case, G. Kevin Ludlow, is up for reappointment. The other two, including Chairwoman Tina Stanford, will have their terms expire or be reappointed in the first year of Cuomo’s third gubernatorial term, assuming he runs and wins re-election next year.

Whatever the motivations, the outcome was right. I am just not sure it is as surprising as it first appeared.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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