Marker honoring the victims of the Brink's Robbery in 1981, Nanuet, New York. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user NYErik.
Judith Clark was meant to spend the rest of her life behind bars for an act of domestic terrorism. The fact that, by May 15, she will be a free woman should make us stop and question what has changed.
I have written before in this space about the 1981 Brink’s Robbery in Rockland County, New York, which resulted in the deaths of one guard and two police officers, as well as seriously injuring another Brink’s guard and a police detective. The participants were six members of the Black Liberation Army and four former members of the Weather Underground; two of the latter were the getaway drivers. Kathy Boudin, the daughter of a civil rights attorney, negotiated a plea deal that made her eligible for parole in 2001. Boudin is now, bizarrely, an adjunct professor at Columbia University. While this result may frustrate many observers, her punishment was arrived at through the ordinary channels of justice.
The other driver, Clark, did not negotiate a plea deal. Instead, she insisted on representing herself and remained defiant in court. She received a minimum sentence of 75 years, which should have meant she would not be eligible for parole until 2056.
Yet Clark received parole in 2019, after fewer than 38 years.
Prosecutors and law enforcement groups, which have strongly opposed parole for Clark, expressed their disappointment in the 2-1 parole board ruling. Rockland County Executive Ed Day said in a statement: “Today’s ruling by the parole board is a cruel and unjust slap in the face to the families of Sergeant Edward O’Grady, Officer Waverly ‘Chipper’ Brown and Brinks guard Peter Paige.” Acting Rockland County District Attorney Kevin Gilleecea said, “Because of [Clark’s] complete disregard for human life and the sheer brutality of the crime, parole should never have been granted for this convicted murderer.” Some of the victims’ children have spoken out against Clark’s parole, both before and after the recent decision to grant it. Arthur Keenan, the detective who was injured in the attack, was also understandably incensed at the decision to grant Clark her freedom.
Of course, there have been those who vocally supported Clark, too. Norma Hill, who testified against Clark at trial, called Clark’s parole “long overdue, given her record during her incarceration.” Activists who support reducing the numbers of elderly inmates also celebrated Clark’s parole. (Clark is 69 years old.) The many supporters who sent letters to the parole board in advance of their decision included more than 70 elected officials, among them New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Notably absent from the discussion in the aftermath of the parole board’s decision has been New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo set the stage for this affair in late 2016 by commuting Clark’s original sentence, making her eligible for parole 36 years early – meaning during her lifetime, since under her original sentence, Clark would not have been eligible until age 106. Yet while Clark’s parole would not have been possible without the governor, Cuomo stopped short of taking responsibility for setting Clark free.
In something of a surprise at the time, the Cuomo-appointed parole board denied Clark’s first application for parole in 2017, shortly after the commutation of her sentence. This development was politically convenient for Cuomo, as it made Clark a nonissue in the governor’s 2018 reelection campaign. Cuomo’s office put out a tellingly neutral statement in 2017, affirming the governor’s original decision to commute Clark’s sentence but expressing respect for the parole board’s decision. Coincidentally or not, the 2019 decision in favor of Clark’s parole now arrives as Cuomo remains among the handful of nationally known Democrats who have not declared they are running for president in 2020. Personally, I would guess “not coincidentally.”
Clark’s legal team pushed back against the original parole board decision. New York State Supreme Court Justice John Kelley found that the 2017 board “acted arbitrarily and capriciously” in denying Clark parole based on the viciousness and political motivation of her crime, regardless of the good works she has performed while incarcerated. Even in New York, however, that decision was too much for a state appeals court, which reversed that ruling. Yet the appeals court also set the stage for another hearing by saying Clark should have had access to more documents.
While initially combative during her trial and in the early years of incarceration, Clark eventually became what some officials described as a “model prisoner.” She counseled mothers behind bars, started an AIDS education program and trained service dogs, as well as furthering her own education. Clark has also issued public statements of remorse and apology. Yet all of these actions do not undo her willing and defiant participation in a violent act whose goal was to raise money to finance further mayhem. The parole board in 2017 said Clark was “still a symbol of violent terroristic crime.” That has not changed in the past two years.
Much of the coverage of Clark’s parole has framed the event as a litmus test: Do observers see imprisonment primarily as a means of punishment or a means of rehabilitation? Clark’s daughter, Harriet Clark, said in a statement, “My great hope is that the Parole Board continues to honor the work people do to transform their lives while in prison and lets more families’ loved ones come home.”
It is natural for families to wish to be reunited, even if their loved one did something terrible. But for the rest of us, it is important not to let time alone diminish the horrific nature of an individual’s crime. The three men that Judith Clark helped kill that day came home to their families in a box. The various good works she did while incarcerated were literally the least she could do to make partial amends while paying for her crime.
Clark’s parole is a testament to our ability as human beings ability to forgive and forget the offenses of others – especially those who look, talk and at least pretend to think the way we do. But we would do better to extend our empathy a different direction, such as toward those who lost someone precious to them in 1981 and have had to live life without that person ever since.
Those of us who abhor the death penalty because of its inhumanity, its disproportionate impact on poor and nonwhite defendants, and its irreversibility in the face of error can only cringe at this miscarriage of appropriate justice, which for Clark was life imprisonment ending with a natural death behind bars. Clark’s original punishment fit her crime. Her release newly injures innocent relatives of her victims, who have already suffered more than Clark ever has, or will.