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Demonstrators in Nyack, N.Y., protested when Kathy Boudin's 20-years-to-life sentence was up for review by the state parole board for the first time in 2001.

A Parole Hearing in New York, With a Governor’s Blessing This Time

A ‘60s radical faces very different political atmosphere than her co-defendant did a decade ago.

Judith Clark, the getaway driver in the 1981 Brinks robbery that left two police officers and one security guard dead, got unexpected news last week: she will go before the New York State parole board this year for the first time, almost 40 years before she was scheduled to.

She will do so with the help and backing of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose involvement puts him at the center of a volatile case that caused a furor a decade ago with the release of one of Clark’s co-defendants, Kathy Boudin.

Boudin was paroled in 2003, and the political fallout from that decision cost two parole commissioners their jobs. The governor at the time, George Pataki, a Republican facing pressure from police unions and having campaigned on a tough-on-crime platform, was furious with the decision. Now, the current New York governor, a Democrat, is facilitating, even advocating, for Clark’s release.

On Friday, Cuomo commuted Clark’s sentence from 75 years–to-life — which would have made her ineligible for parole until 2056, at age 107 — to 35 years–to-life, which makes her eligible this year. Clark, now 67, has been in prison since 1983. “We call it the ‘correction’ system,” Cuomo told The New York Times. “I think the situation is corrected as it is ever going to be, unless you can bring a person back to life.”

Clark and Boudin were part of a gang that held up a Brink’s truck carrying more than $1 million from a mall in Rockland County, northwest of New York City. Members of radical left-wing organizations like the Weather Underground, they were trying to raise money for a black separatist state they called the Republic of New Afrika. Three people were killed in the robbery attempt: Nyack police Sgt. Edward O’Grady and Officer Waverly Brown (ironically, the department’s first black officer), and Peter Paige, a Brink’s guard. A second Brink’s guard, Joseph Trombino, was wounded.

Instead of commuting Clark’s sentence outright — which is within his power to do — Cuomo made Clark eligible for parole. This gives him a measure of political insulation, placing the decision in the hands of the board. But several former board members say that those on the board are always acutely aware of what the governor would want when they make decisions in high-profile cases. That’s because they were appointed to their six-year terms by the governor himself. “You know that the second floor is aware of those cases,” says former board member Vernon Manley, referring to the location of the governor’s office in the Capitol building in Albany. “It’s obviously there in the back of your mind.”

Most often, the pressure is to not release. “It’s always safer to deny than to parole; it takes no courage and is the safest route to job security,” wrote Barbara Treen in a memoir about her 12 years as a New York state parole board member. “One doesn’t want to find oneself in the headlines.” This is especially at issue in cases where a police officer was killed; news coverage is intense and often calls out board members by name.

Board members in New York and on parole boards around the country can easily cite cases in which colleagues were fired or not reappointed because a governor was upset about a decision they made.

Among these was the decision to release Boudin in 2003. The New York board has fourteen members, but each release decision is made by just two; rotating teams of two or three travel to prisons around the state to interview inmates. Boudin had pleaded guilty to her involvement in the Brink’s robbery, and as part of her deal had received a 20-years-to-life sentence. When she came before Manley and his colleague Daizzee Bouey, she had served 22 years and had already been rejected for parole twice.

The typical parole interview lasts between five and seven minutes. The commissioners have just a few minutes to skim the inmate’s file beforehand. By contrast, Manley says, he and Bouey stayed up much of the previous night looking through Boudin’s file, and interviewed her for 45 minutes. “It was a big case and you just don’t want to make a wrong decision,” he says. In prison, Boudin had established a college program for inmates, was only a few credits shy of her doctorate in education, and had published research in several academic journals. “I’m thinking, she is perhaps the best prisoner I had come across,” Manley says. “So many programs she had done, research she had done that’s being used at Yale and Princeton. It’s just impressive. With all the resources and connections I have, I couldn’t even do this. How has she done this in prison?” Her interview, in which she expressed great insight into, and remorse for, her role in the crime, Manley said, solidified his sense that releasing her was the right thing to do.

Still, he was mindful that there could be consequences.

“I did say to Daizzee, if we release her, it’s highly likely we might not get reappointed,” Manley said. “I was O.K. with it if I thought it was the right thing to do,” he added, but he was much older than Bouey and nearing retirement.

The backlash was immediate. Pataki said he was “thoroughly disappointed and completely disagreed with the parole board's decision,” and the board announced a “top to bottom review” of parole procedures. And Manley’s prediction was right: neither he nor Bouey was reappointed to the board. Robert Dennison was appointed board chair shortly after the Boudin vote, and he recalls a meeting with the governor’s appointment officer. “Don’t even try to advocate for those two. They’re gone,” the man said, according to Dennison. “He did say the governor was very upset they let out Kathy Boudin, and he’s not going to reappoint them.”

In Clark’s case, Dennison said in an interview Thursday, the board is likely feeling pressure in the opposite direction. In making his decision, Cuomo met face-to-face with Clark for an hour this fall, an unheard of move by a sitting governor. “When you meet her you get a sense of her soul,” he told The Times afterward. “Her honesty makes her almost transparent as a personality. She takes full responsibility. There are no excuses. There are no justifications.”

Not surprisingly, some victims’ relatives disagree. Calls and emails to the Rockland County police union were not returned, but Michael Paige, son of the Brink’s guard who was killed, told The New York Daily News that he was “sickened and outraged” by Cuomo’s decision. The union’s website includes a call to write the Department of Corrections in opposition to Clark’s parole hearing.

Still, given the governor’s public comments, “I’m assuming they all feel the governor wants her paroled,” Dennison says of the board. So to not parole her would be “going against his explicit desire.” In a reversal of the usual political dynamics at parole boards, “I think there’s a good chance if they did not parole her they would not get reappointed.”

This article has been updated to say that members of the state parole board interview prisoners in teams of two or three, not in pairs.