On Judith Clark issue, Cuomo can have his cake and eat it too

By all accounts, Judith Clark is a remarkable human being. Now 67, she was incarcerated at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in New York for the past thirty-five years. All kinds of good people have called for her release.

At one time as a member of the Weather Underground, she participated in the Brinks armored car robbery that tragically resulted in the death of a guard and two police officers. Clark was driver of the getaway car. In New York, you can be convicted of felony murder if you are part of the crime.

While in prison, Clark was accused of participating in planning an escape attempt and she drew substantial time in solitary confinement. Since her time in solitary, published reports say that she renounced her old ways and became a model prisoner, creating college programs in prison and becoming a writer of some note. She started a remarkable AIDS program and she has worked assiduously training rescue and criminal justice dogs. Her family and many, many others have campaigned for Clark’s release. Kathy Boudin, another remarkable person, was released because, unlike Clark, she pleaded guilty and has found real success outside the prison walls.

Now it gets interesting. Governor Andrew Cuomo commuted Clark’s sentence, which meant that she was eligible to go before the Parole Board and ask for release. Last week the parole board denied her request. Among the naysayers was a Cuomo appointee and there was hell to pay. Relatives of the men who had been killed in the robbery were incensed. After all, these men were dead and Clark, no matter what her good works, was alive.

You may be asking yourself why Cuomo decided to commute Clark’s sentence. That calls for a lot of speculation but here’s what comes to mind. In his last run for governor, the progressive candidate, Zephyr Teachout, came close to defeating Cuomo with all his money and power-playing phalanx. This must have alarmed Cuomo so greatly that he did an immediate pivot and decided that he needed to shore up his left wing. Hence his college tuition program endorsed by Bernie Sanders and possibly this commutation of Clark’s sentence.

Cuomo’s problem was that in doing so, he alienated another group that he really needs – the more conservative supporters that he courted with his early anti-tax stances. The push back against Clark’s potential release was extraordinary and he was caught with his philosophical pants down. Police were furious. The children and relatives of the dead officers were furious. The law and order guys in the State Senate were furious. Thousands of people petitioned the parole board, demanding that Clark not be released.

Judith Clark now.

As I have pointed out in the past. Cuomo is a pragmatist. When he decided that he didn’t want to give legislators a pay raise unless they gave him ethics reform, his appointees on the so- called state commission on pay raises commission got and voted against the raise. So much for independence. Now one of Cuomo’s people on the parole board voted no on Clark. Of course that member could have been truly independent but that appointee saved Cuomo’s political hash. Members of the press were quick to assume that this was an embarrassing loss for Cuomo but I’m not so sure of that.

Mario Cuomo used to tell me on our long-running radio show that he was against the death penalty. He thought the idea of a life sentence, listening to the toilet flush, was even crueler. In fact the alternative to the death penalty is life in prison, real life. Of course, now Cuomo can have his cake and eat it, too. He can tell his left flank, “Well, I tried,” and be out from under this mess. In the meantime, Clark sits in prison.