Campaigning For Clemency

Just before Christmas Governor Pataki is expected to commute the sentences of a few state prisoners. Will any of these women get lucky?

Precious Bedell

At first glance, Precious Bedell, 44, seems an unlikely candidate for clemency. After all, she killed her own child. While dining at Valle's Steak House in Syracuse on November 7, 1979, Precious took her two-year-old daughter LaShonda into the bathroom to clean her face. Then she beat LaShonda so badly that she fractured the toddler's skull. The child died four days later.

Precious, then 25, was a drug addict with two other children. Though there was no evidence that she had battered either them or LaShonda in the past, Precious was convicted of second-degree murder. The judge sentenced her to 25 years to life. So far, Precious has served 18 years.

Precious BedellAge: 44Crime: Murdered daughter in bathroom of Syracuse restaurantSentence: 25 years to lifeTime served: 18 yearsAdvocates: District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, actress Glenn Close
Andrew Lichtenstein
Precious Bedell

Age: 44
Crime: Murdered daughter in bathroom of Syracuse restaurant
Sentence: 25 years to life
Time served: 18 years
Advocates: District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, actress Glenn Close

The fact that the state clemency bureau appears to be seriously considering Precious's application is a testament to her accomplishments over the years. When a special parole board visited Bedford Hills last month, Precious was one of the few clemency candidates who got to make her case.

As she talks about her life inside Bedford Hills, Precious sounds more like the director of a nonprofit organization than a violent criminal serving hard time. Since entering Bedford Hills in 1980, she has taught inmate classes on family law with a Columbia Law School professor, developed a 12-week course on African American parenting, and cowritten a handbook to help incarcerated mothers navigate the foster-care system. Precious, a high school drop-out on the outside, now has a master's in psychology from Norwich University.

Such achievements have helped Precious attract a slew of supporters. The most dedicated is Nancy Hollander, former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, who has been handling Precious's case for free for 13 years. She has donated thousands of hours to Precious's cause because, she says, "This woman is just heroic."

With Hollander's help, Precious put together a persuasive application for clemency. It includes letters of support from Precious's two grown children, and from two of the people who put her in prison: the former prosecutor who tried her and a member of the jury that voted to convict her. But the most famous signature in Precious's stack of letters belongs to Glenn Close, who met the inmate while making a documentary at Bedford Hills in 1991.

"Precious and I have been friends since that first visit," the actress wrote. "I value her friendship tremendously and have, on several occasions, sought out her wisdom and council [sic] . . . I believe that Precious is not a danger to others, and would, in fact, trust her with my own nine-year-old daughter."

Precious also has the enthusiastic backing of William Fitzpatrick, the district attorney of Onondaga County. It is highly unusual for a district attorney to fight to free a criminal his office once prosecuted. Even more surprising, Fitzpatrick is a conservative Republican who has earned a national reputation for aggressively prosecuting infanticide.

Fitzpatrick heard about Precious's progress three years ago and agreed to meet with her in his Syracuse office. By the end of their one-hour meeting, Precious had won him over. "My initial reaction was one of skepticism," Fitzpatrick says. "I thought that this is a really horrible crime and it is. But the more I reviewed the evidence of what she had done in prison . . . I thought it made perfect sense for her to be out sharing her experiences."

Now Fitzpatrick is using his political clout to help Precious. The district attorney, who served on Pataki's transition team, says he has spoken about Precious with the governor. "It's a tough sell," Fitzpatrick admits. "I understand the governor's reticence. He may say, 'Look, I don't want people to say, "Oh my God, this guy let a baby killer go." ' But this is a woman who has clearly changed her life around."

Precious also worries whether the political climate is conducive to her plea for clemency. "Every time someone commits a crime on TV now, I'm nervous that it may affect me," she says. Asked how she feels today about the crime she committed 19 years ago, Precious says, "No matter how many years you spend in prison, it can never compensate for a human life."

Donna Charles

When Angela Thompson found out last year that she had won clemency, Donna Charles was one of the first to congratulate her. The moment was bittersweet. Both Donna, then 38, and Angela, 27, were first-time drug offenders. Both had applied for clemency. But only Angela was going home.

Angela became a cause célèbre in the media after a retired judge began lobbying for her release. On Christmas Eve last year, Donna sat in the visiting room at Bedford Hills with Sister Karen Cavanagh, a Queens nun who had befriended her. They watched Angela celebrate nearby. And they strategized about how to get Donna out.

"If only we had a judge," Sister Karen said.

"The only judge I know is the judge who sentenced me," said Donna.

When Donna told Sister Karen the name of her judge, it sounded familar. As it turned out, a student in the Catholic high school where Sister Karen had worked was the granddaughter of Queens judge Ann B. Dufficy, who had sent Donna to prison. In 1986, Donna got nabbed at LaGuardia Airport with a six-pound bag of cocaine. The mother of two small children, she had been promised $1500 for her work as a drug mule. So far, Donna has served 11 years of a 17-years-to-life sentence.

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