The day before the Mueller Report was released, there was a very different judgement about law and order when the New York State Parole board granted Judith Clark early release from prison. That was the right call.
Clark was a member of an offshoot of the famous Weather Underground who broke from them for an even more fanatical group, the May 19th Communist Organization. That group, in turn, supported and worked with the Black Liberation Army. Clark drove what was meant to be a getaway car in the Oct. 20, 1981 robbery in Rockland County, N.Y, in which BLA members stole $1.6 million from a Brink's armored van and drove away. A police barricade forced them to stop and as the police approached, Black Liberation Army members came out from the back of their getaway van shooting, killing two Nyack, N.Y. police officers and a Brink's security guard.
Clark had parked her car outside of a mall and had no idea what had occurred when she sped off after seeing the van followed by police. She was eventually caught, convicted for her role, and sentenced to 75 years to life. In 2017, Governor Andrew Cuomo decided to visit Clark in prison after dozens of appeals for clemency had been sent on her behalf. He became convinced of her repentance and complete rehabilitation and commuted her sentence to 35 years to life. That gave her the legal right to go before the parole board and petition them for release.
The board chose to release her, and some conservatives are livid, as are Rockland County leaders. They argue, as did the New York Post editorial entitled "If Cuomo’s parole board can free terrorist Judith Clark, it’ll free anyone", that under Cuomo’s reign as governor, the parole board “has been emptying New York’s prisons of cop-killer and political radicals left and right.” The editors acknowledge that it does seem that Clark “built a life for herself behind bars… and appeared to be a model of rehabilitation,” and that she might even show other prisoners “that rehabilitation is worth pursuing as a path to freedom.” Nevertheless, they conclude that “Some crimes are too heinous to merit parole for those guilty of them.”
An accompanying article quotes Rockland officials calling her release “a perversion of justice” and a “slap in the face” to the families of the murdered police officers. They argue that her release “signals to the criminal element that it is open season on cops.”
So, the question emerges: Are the critics correct in their view that Clark should have stayed in prison for her full sentence? There are precedents for her release; others involved in the Brink's robbery whose cases had far less merit than hers had their sentences greatly reduced. Kathy Boudin accepted a plea bargain before trial, accepting guilt for one count of felony murder and robbery, that resulted in a lesser sentence of only 20 years to life. She was paroled after serving only 22 years, having been granted parole in August of 2003. Afterwards, she became an Adjunct Prof. at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, and in April of 2013, was appointed Sheinberg Scholar-in-Residence at NYU Law School. While she accomplished much that was good while in prison, she was not publicly repentant. (At the time, I opposed her release.)
Neither was Linda Evans, a Weather Underground member who was arrested in May of 1985 for terrorist acts unrelated to the Brink's robbery. After trial, she was convicted of acquiring weapons, with which she planned to bomb the U.S. Capitol Building, the National War College, the Navy Yard Computer Center, the Navy Yard Officers Club, Israeli Aircraft Industries, the FBI and the New York Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. She was found holding a large stash of dynamite and received a sentence of 40 years in prison. Then, as he left office, Bill Clinton, giving no explanation, pardoned her.
On his very last day in office, Bill Clinton also inexplicably pardoned Susan Rosenberg, another self-styled revolutionary, who gave no apologies for her actions. She was imprisoned for only 16 years of her 58 years sentence. She was arrested, Wikipedia reports, “with an accomplice… in 1984 while unloading 740 pounds of dynamite and weapons from a car into a storage locker in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. She had also been sought as an accomplice in the 1979 prison escape of Assata Shakur.” She eventually wrote a memoir, declaring in it that she was a “political prisoner,” something she previously had said was a misnomer, since she had said she was proud of being guilty of revolutionary acts.
Judith Clark stands alone in reevaluating and repudiating her past actions and apologizing for them. In a letter she wrote to Governor Cuomo before her release, she noted that while “my life is fueled by a hope-filled commitment to repair, I never forget that the lives lost on October 20, 1981, cannot be brought back. I live each day with sorrow, shame and regret for my role in the deaths of Peter Paige, Edward O’Grady and Waverly Brown.” Adding that she seeks to understand others through “empathy and respect,” she concluded that at the heart of her effort “is my awareness of the harm I caused.”
In an earlier letter written in 2002 to the families of the men that were killed, she wrote that “our use of violence had nothing to do with empowering those in whose name we ‘fought,’ but with ourselves.” Explaining why she resorted to violence, she wrote that she looked “back at a group process in which we melted down complicated issues into pure ideology, our particular form of fundamentalism.”
For those who think she is simply saying these words to get paroled, you can judge for yourself by viewing this video interview. Clark, unlike Susan Rosenberg, says at the beginning that the first thing she did is that “I stopped calling myself a political prisoner. “I was not innocent,” she says, and I do not seek to “justify the crime.” She recognizes that “three good men, with families, were killed for no good reason.” I would never, she concludes, “participate in anything that would lead to other people’s devastation.”
Compare her view with that of Gilbert, a former Columbia University student who became a revolutionary and who believes to this day that everything he did when the Brink's robbery led to the murder of the two cops and one guard, was justified to achieve his goal of communist revolution. In his autobiographical book written in prison, Gilbert explains that the Black Revolutionary Army’s struggle was a “just” one, in which they had gone to war because it was “forced upon them by the murderous assaults on legal dissent.” The BLA, he writes, “never shot anyone who wasn’t an armed professional and always took great care to avoid civilian casualties.” Police are not, in Gilbert’s eyes, protectors of the community in which they live, but members of an army representing a ruling class that is at war with the oppressed. The murders of the three at the robbery, therefore, were simply “armed resistance.” He considers his group of revolutionary thugs as simply made up of “political dissidents.” He still holds, he says, “a deep commitment to revolutionary change.” No one save for a few of his fellow far-left delusional revolutionaries, (including Susan Rosenberg, filmmaker and music artist Boots Riley and former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers) is calling for his release.
I can fully understand how the families of those killed are furious and unforgiving, but their understandable grief and anger cannot be used as a justification for continuing to imprison someone as truly repentant—as I believe Judith Clark is—to be held in prison until death. Clark has served her time, knows she was wrong, and is not the person she was in the radical era nor a revolutionary ideologue of any sort. A former supervisor of her prison attested that Clark had changed “into one of the most perceptive, thoughtful, helpful, and profound human beings I have ever known.” Having proved herself through decades of service to others while in prison, she should be free to live out her remaining years among friends and family.