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The Push for Clemency for Former Radical Judy Clark….and Related Topics

The cover story in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is a profile of Judy Clark,
one of a group of militant radicals who, in 1981, tried to rob a Brinks truck and ended up killing two police officers, and one of the Brinks guards, before getting caught. Clark was one of the getaway drivers for the group. As it turned out, she was an inexperienced and untalented driver and so managed to smash the car in which she and two of her crimeys were escaping into a concrete wall, at which point she and they were arrested.

Clark compounded her mistakes by insisting upon representing herself in trial and hectoring the jury with phrases like “Revolutionary violence is necessary, and it is a liberating force.”

As a consequence, she was sentenced to 75 years in prison—more than several of her co-defendants, most famously, Kathy Boudin, who let her private attorney do the talking. Boudin got 20 to life, and is already out, while Clark has thus far done 30 of her 75-year sentence.

The NYT Mag story on Clark and her subsequent “transformation,” written by former Village Voice investigative reporter, Tom Robbins (not to be confused with the novelist), is clearly intent on making the case for Clark’s release, without actually saying as much. Robbins, who knew Clark in her pre-Brinks robbing days, is much too smart a journalist to be that obvious (even if the NY Times editors would go along with it, which they wouldn’t). Instead, he makes the case that she has changed profoundly. And certainly by all accounts Clark seems to be a very positive force at Bedford Hills, the maximum security women’s prison where she has been for the past three decades.

(Read the article for the details.)

As Robbins notes, Clark has drawn to herself a long list of people pleading for clemency in her behalf, several of whom are very persuasive.

Speaking personally, however, I find I have a slew of mixed feelings about this matter.

Sure, I believe the warm looking, grey-haired, school-teacherish white lady has likely done enough time. Moreover, many of the prison officials who know her well describe her potential as a positive force who could better contribute to society on the outside, rather than being locked up on the public’s dime.

And the truth is, we incarcerate way too many people in this country for way too long. It is a practice is corroding our collective soul as well as our state budgets.

But—again just speaking personally—there are quite a number of people I’d put on the clemency list ahead of Clark. Yet none of them happens to be a cozy-smiled, well-educated, white woman.

They are instead former gang members whom we are content to put on the throwaway list.

(I’d wager that most working public defenders have their own special shortlist of former clients they’d put on the clemency list. Ditto prison chaplains, and so on.)

One more thing: I’d have felt a lot more comfortable with Robbins’ article if he and the Times’ editors thought to spend just a paragraph or two on the three victims: Edward O’Grady, Waverly Brown, and Peter Paige—all of whom had kids.

I’m just sayin’.


In the last two years, Michelle Alexander’s important book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, has been the #1 must read for criminal justice advocates.

Monday, NPR’S Fresh Air ran an interview with Alexander for Martin Luther King Day. The broadcast is worth listening to in its own right. And, by happy coincidence, it is also a good contextual framework with which to view the NY Times Judith Clark story.

Here’s a clip from Fresh Air’s write up on the show.

Under Jim Crow laws, black Americans were relegated to a subordinate status for decades. Things like literacy tests for voters and laws designed to prevent blacks from serving on juries were commonplace in nearly a dozen Southern states.

In her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, legal scholar Michelle Alexander writes that many of the gains of the civil rights movement have been undermined by the mass incarceration of black Americans in the war on drugs. She says that although Jim Crow laws are now off the books, millions of blacks arrested for minor crimes remain marginalized and disfranchised, trapped by a criminal justice system that has forever branded them as felons and denied them basic rights and opportunities that would allow them to become productive, law-abiding citizens.

Just listen.


Former Daily News editor of the Daily News, Ron Kaye, wrote an Op Ed for the Glendale News Press about his friend Nyabingi Kuti, a community organizer and activist with the MLK Coalition, who is working to bring together reentry services and programs for those getting out of prison.

Here’s a clip:

…..the governor’s “realignment” plan that started Oct. 1,…has a lot of people worried that it will trigger a huge surge in crime after years of decline. After all, without effective rehabilitation programs re-entry into society is tough, which is why we have a 70% recidivism rate.

Many local politicians and law enforcement officials figure are howling for more money to hire more cops and build more county jails.

But others like Nyabingi {Kuti] are working hard to develop alternatives to jail and tough policing to actually turn realignment into a creative opportunity to bring resources together to help the “formerly incarcerated” — a preferred term for ex-convicts — stay out of trouble and lead productive lives.

Right—which is exactly what realignment can be—a creative opportunity. Let us hope more people in the city and county see fit to similarly rise to that challenge.


It’s good that an LA Times editorial calls for a thorough review of the situation in the LA County Jails by the new Citizen’s Commission—a la the Christopher Commission.

(I believe that’s what WitnessLA called for early last March, but okay, why quibble?)

But then the Times editorial goes on to say….nothing new. They say that the commission “….could determine whether the deputy culture inside the lockups is part of the problem. It could consider whether rookie deputies, whose first job out of the academy is as jailers, receive appropriate supervision. And it could identify the shortcomings that allow excessive use of force to go unpunished….”

Y’think??? What the Times fails to mention, and what WitnessLA has repeatedly pointed out, is that the root elements that have allowed all of the above problems to flourish begin well upstream of the symptomatic issues that the Times ticks off.

Fortunately, I think there are at least a couple of people on the commission who know where and how to look beyond the symptoms.

Photos of Judith Clark: (right) Nan Goldin for The New York Times. (left) Associated Press.

1 Comment

  • If Judith Clark is rehabilitated, why isn’t she willing to cooperated with federal and state authorities who are still investigating the incident for which she was convicted; full disclosure as to the details, people and methods involved?


    Arthur T. Dallas
    2200 Wilson Ave
    Bx, NY 10469-5811

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