By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
One woman killed her boyfriend. Another sold four ounces of cocaine to a confidential informant. A third beat her baby to death in a restaurant bathroom. And a fourth tried to smuggle six pounds of cocaine from New York to Tennessee.
Meet four women lobbying to be among the lucky few prisoners who will likely receive clemency from Governor George Pataki next week. All are longtime inmates at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County. And like hundreds of other prisoners across the state, these four women have spent the last several months or, in some cases, years trying to convince the governor to set them free.
Every Christmas, New York State's governor traditionally commutes the sentences of a handful of inmates. Since 1995, Pataki has granted clemency to 13 inmates, freeing them from prison early pending approval from the parole board. Almost all were nonviolent drug offenders serving lengthy prison sentences for a first offense. "These cases the governor has a great deal of sympathy for," says Paul Shechtman, Pataki's former criminal justice coordinator. "I think he sees clemency as way to mitigate the harshness of the Rockefeller drug laws."
These drug laws, signed 25 years ago by governor Nelson Rockefeller, require stiff mandatory sentences for narcotics possession and sales. Critics charge that clemency allows the governor to look compassionate on this issue without risking political backlash. "Granting clemency to a few very sympathetic cases does nothing to correct the system," says Robert Gangi of the Correctional Association of New York, which lobbies for repealing the laws.
The official qualifications for clemency are simple: You must have a minimum sentence of a year, have served at least half of it, and be more than a year away from your parole date. But there are many more unofficial rules you should know. You have a better shot at clemency if you earned a college degree while imprisoned, and if the warden likes you enough to write a letter on your behalf. Your chances are rather slim if you ever punched a guard or got caught smoking a joint in your cell or tried to scale the prison's razor-ribbon fences.
To apply for clemency, all you have to do is write to the governor. Even a note scribbled on a brown paper bag will do. But your chances improve if you can find advocates lawyers or activists or family members or friends who will devote hundreds of unpaid hours to your campaign. It helps your cause if the governor knows that a lot of people care about you. So you may want to woo politicians, convince journalists to tell your story, and collect letters of support from everyone you can think of prison guards, siblings, fellow inmates, childhood friends, past employers, even complete strangers.
To beat out hundreds of competitors and win the prize of stripping off your cotton uniform, you will need plenty of perseverance, political savvy, and, of course, luck. Just ask Anthony Papa. A self-described "PR wizard," Papa waged a successful two-year clemency campaign and got himself out of Sing Sing Correctional Facility in 1997.
"It's a very political game," says Papa, who became an accomplished painter while incarcerated on a first-time drug offense. "You have to separate yourself from the others because there are so many people who are fully rehabilitated and ready to reenter society. My art is how I separated myself from the crowd."
All clemency applications wind up at the Executive Clemency Bureau, an office within the state's Division of Parole. Staffers weed out prisoners who do not meet the guidelines. Then they investigate. They collect behavior records and medical reports. And they solicit the opinions of the parole board, judges, prosecutors, and victims. Every December, a dozen or so of the strongest applications land on the governor's desk. After consulting with his top aides, he makes his choice.
As the governor's aides are scrambling to finish this process before Christmas, tension builds inside the state's prisons. Clemency candidates know the odds are against them. (Seven state prisoners received clemency in 1996. But only three two men and one woman got it last year.) Nowhere is the sense of competition greater than at Bedford Hills. Because it is the state's only maximum-security facility for women, Bedford Hills is also home to many of the strongest clemency contenders. There, some women research each other's crimes in the law library to see how they stack up. Others snub fellow inmates who manage to get a coveted interview with a reporter.
"It's a terrible process," says Thea DuBow, who spent three and a half years at Bedford Hills in the mid 1980s. "It pits woman against woman, possibly friend against friend. The women feel, 'Why would you get it and not me?' "
Here, four female inmates tell how they are campaigning for clemency, and why they believe the governor should commute their sentences. All have been model prisoners, and all are anxiously awaiting word of their fate in this high-stakes lottery. Come next week, one or more may find out that the governor has bestowed on her a priceless Christmas present: the chance to go free.
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.
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."
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.
Sister Karen wrote a note explaining Donna's circumstances, then asked the teenage student to deliver it to her grandmother. In May, Judge Dufficy, who is now retired, wrote to Pataki on Donna's behalf. "No person could be more deserving of executive clemency than DONNA CHARLES," she wrote.
Sister Karen's efforts to spring Donna from prison have stretched far beyond wooing Judge Dufficy. After Pataki's reelection, the nun sent a congratulatory card. Inside, she taped a fortune-cookie message: "The most precious flower of victory is pardon." She even convinced her longtime friend, Mike Long, a Pataki ally and the chair of the state's Conservative Party, to write on Donna's behalf.
Sister Karen has also tapped into her network of nuns. The Sisters of Saint Joseph, which is based on Long Island, has 900 members. Sister Karen urged them all to write letters. She even wrote a prayer for Donna, which she distributed to her fellow nuns and Judge Dufficy.
Lastly, the tenacious sister has worked the media. She tipped off a Newsdaycolumnist, and he wrote about Donna. Sister Karen hopes her strategy of bombarding Pataki with mail, prayers, and publicity will pay off. "If nothing else, maybe he'll just say, 'Let me get this woman out of my hair,' " the nun says.
Inside Bedford Hills, Donna is optimistic. Like Precious, she won a rare meeting with a special parole board in November. Already, some of Donna's fellow inmates are congratulating her. As she walks through the prison's corridors, they yell, "Girl, you've got it! You're going home!"
But Donna tries not to get too excited. "I'm scared to feel sure that I'm going because what happens when I don't go?" she says. But Donna can't stop the promise of freedom from permeating her dreams. "Every night it never fails," she says. "My dreams are of being out in the world shopping, walking with my kids, laying in the grass."
Linda White, 51, hopes her friend Charline Brundidge paved the way for her to leave prison. Brundidge got clemency in 1996, after serving 11 years of a 15-years-to-life sentence for killing her abusive husband. She had the fervent support of antidomestic-violence activists, who argued that she was one of many battered women who had been imprisoned too long for crimes of self-defense. For Linda, Brundidge's clemency became a new source of hope.
Linda wound up in Bedford Hills after killing a six-foot, 230-pound electrician named John Strouble in 1989. The couple dated for 15 months, and the relationship soon turned violent. One of Linda's neighbors testified she once had to free Linda after Strouble tied her up in the apartment with a leather belt. On other occasions, Linda says, Strouble slashed her arm with a razor blade and sexually assaulted her with a broken broomstick.
On the morning in 1989, Strouble waved a gun at Linda inside her 11th-floor apartment in a Far Rockaway, Queens, housing project. "He used to threaten me with a gun and then put it in a toolbox and close it up," Linda says. "But this morning he didn't do that. He put it on the nightstand. I thought he was going to do it this time." For his part, John informed his girlfriend: "I'm really going to kill you this time."
So Linda picked up the 38-caliber handgun from the night table and unloaded five bullets into the back of John Strouble. He died. She went to prison. A jury convicted Linda of second-degree murder. So far, she has served nine years of a 17-years-to-life sentence.
More than a year ago, Philip M. Genty, a professor at Columbia Law School, began working on Linda's case. The clemency application he compiled with several graduate students is two inches thick. It includes a 68-page petition arguing that if Linda committed her crime today, she likely would have been charged with first-degree manslaughter instead of murder. Had she been convicted of this lesser crime, Linda might now be out of prison.
Linda's clemency application includes more than 50 exhibits. There is the order of protection she got against Strouble, an employer's letter stating he was fired because of a drug problem, and certificates from the antiviolence programs she has completed while incarcerated. There's even a nine-minute videotape on which she talks about her abuse.
One item that is not in Linda's clemency packet, however, is a letter from Warren Silverman, the former prosecutor who tried her case. Silverman still believes Linda shot her boyfriend because she was jealous of his other girlfriend, not because she was afraid of him. "I didn't see any evidence of a battering relationship and certainly there was no evidence that her life was in danger," he says.
Meanwhile, two of Linda's former attorneys recently met with Queens District Attorney Richard Brown to win his support. Brown says, "I told them I would not oppose the application."
Linda dropped out of school after getting pregnant at age 14. By the time she turned 18, she had three children of her own. Linda took on the job of also rearing her four younger siblings when her mother died. By the time she was 24, Linda was raising seven children under the age of 10, including a mentally retarded brother. Without the help of Genty and his team of students, Linda knows she would have little chance of winning clemency. A former supermarket cashier, Linda says, "I'm not educated, and you really have to be educated to know what you're doing."
Though she has a well-coordinated campaign and has received some publicity, Linda is resigned to the possibility that she may not get clemency this Christmas. "I feel next year will be my year," she says. "I feel the women they're going to [give it to] deserve it more than me. Precious has been here so long, she has more than earned it."
Unlike some clemency candidates, Elaine Bartlett, 41, does not have the backing of a judge or a district attorney or a team of law students. But like many of her fellow applicants, she does have an overwhelmingly sad story.
Elaine has been incarcerated since she was 26. In 1983, she sold four ounces of cocaine to a confidential informant. At the time, she was raising four children in an East Harlem housing project. This 15-minute interaction in an Albany hotel room was Elaine's first criminal offense. She thought she would get $2500. Instead, she got 20 years to life.
Elaine began her quest for clemency in the fall of 1995. She wanted to get out of prison fast in order to care for her mother, who was dying of kidney failure. Older inmates gave Elaine some pointers, and she went to the prison law library for information on how to apply. She drafted a one-page letter. And then she waited. It took months before she learned she would get an audience with a special parole board.
The memory of that 1996 meeting still haunts her. "I wasn't prepared for it," Elaine says. "I never experienced anything like that before. You'll kill yourself worrying about what you did wrong."
The clemency bureau eventually denied Elaine's application. And last March, Elaine's mother passed away. Elaine's 23-year-old son, Robert, who had been away at college in South Dakota on a basketball scholarship, quit school to care for his younger sisters. Robert, Elaine, 16, and Satara, 18, live together on the Lower East Side. (A fourth sibling is serving time at Attica for selling drugs.)
Elaine gave up her hopes of clemency after the first rejection. But this year, her children applied for her, sending in letters begging the governor to release their mother. "For all my life my mother been locked up," the teenage Elaine wrote. "I feel very sad 'cause now I don't have no one to go to my twelve grade graduation."
Satara echoed her sister's pain. "The problem is that I cry all the time because my mom is away and my grandmother is gone and it's nobody thier for me no more," Satara wrote in July. In another letter, Satara pleaded for her mother's release. "My family is falling apart and times are hard," she wrote. "Sometimes I feel like killing myself because my mother lefted me and know my grandmother is gone. She should of took me with her."
Elaine weeps when she thinks about Satara's letter. "I had no idea my daughter wanted to commit suicide," she says. "These are things that your kids don't tell you when they come to visit."
Thanks to Lora Tucker, Elaine's chance of getting clemency may be better this time around. Tucker works for WomenCare, Inc., a Manhattan nonprofit that helps current and former prisoners. In 1997, Tucker met Elaine while teaching a coping-skills workshop at Bedford Hills.
"When she first came in, I could see she felt hopeless," Tucker recalls. "Some of the women have people on the outside who are supporting them, but Elaine didn't. I could see that she needed someone on her side."
For the past year, Tucker has devoted her evenings and weekends to Elaine's campaign. She has persuaded more than 100 people including critics of the Rockefeller drug laws as well as members of her own church to write letters on Elaine's behalf. Elaine learned a few lessons from her first try for clemency, and she got more aggressive. Inside Bedford Hills, she too solicits letters of support from everyone she encounters.
If she does not succeed, Elaine will probably be stuck behind bars until she is eligible for parole in 2004. "I guess it's all a matter of who you know and who they know and how you market yourself," she says. Over the years, Elaine has watched the governor free women who had done less time or been convicted of worse crimes. This Christmas, she says, "if they don't give me clemency, I know I'm going to be devastated. It takes a long time to heal from that."
Research assistance: Soo-Min Oh