A Proskauer team recently succeeded in obtaining parole on behalf of 69-year-old pro bono client Judith Clark, who has been in prison for nearly 38 years. This case may play an important role in effecting much needed parole reform in New York. Personally, it has been among the most satisfying cases on which I have ever worked.
Judith was the getaway driver for the infamous 1981 Brinks robbery that resulted in the killings of two police officers and a Brinks guard, and was sentenced to 75 years to life in prison. Judith’s transformation from radical revolutionary to a completely rehabilitated person began in the mid-1980s. Since then, she has devoted herself to helping others. Her efforts included starting an AIDS counseling program for prisoners that was copied nationwide, building a prison college program (and earning two degrees), helping to run her prison’s infant care center for incarcerated mothers, training more than a dozen dogs to help wounded veterans and law enforcement, and individually mentoring and counseling hundreds of women to help them turn their lives around. After personally interviewing Judith in 2016, Governor Cuomo granted her clemency, thereby making her eligible for parole.
The Proskauer team became involved in Judith’s case in 2017 after her first parole application was denied. We challenged that denial in a successful lawsuit, convincing a New York Supreme Court judge that the Parole Board’s actions were arbitrary and capricious. Rather than ordering a new hearing, the Appellate Division directed the holding of a new intermediate administrative appeal after Judith had been provided documents which the Parole Board had wrongfully withheld from her. By the time that process had been completed, Judith was entitled under the law to her next parole hearing which was held in early April.
In advance of that hearing, and working with a coalition of supporters, we submitted an advocacy letter together to the Parole Board with over 2,000 supporting letters, including submissions from former New York DA Robert Morgenthau, former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, 13 former presidents of the New York City Bar, four former parole commissioners, 150 members of the clergy, over 70 New York elected officials, and hundreds of others who have known and been impacted by Judith. In its 2-1 decision granting parole, the Parole Board found “ample evidence of rehabilitation, remorse and transformation” warranting Judith’s release. The majority concluded “that your release would [not] so deprecate your offense as to undermine respect for the law.” The dissenting commissioner emphasized the “aggravating factors against [her] release” and found “most compelling the impact on the families and loved ones” of the murder victims.
As a result of this case and others, numerous members of the State Legislature are presently considering potential parole reforms. What purpose, reformers argue, is served by keeping someone in prison, particularly an elderly prisoner (of whom there are more than 10,000 over age 50 in New York), for an extended period of time – at a cost to tax payers of nearly $70,000 a year – who are indisputably fully rehabilitated and pose no threat to society?
The satisfaction realized from this case – resulting in a woman who last saw her infant daughter outside of prison 38 years ago – reminded me again of the rewards and incredible importance of pro bono work, and its impact on individuals and society.
The Proskauer team also included associates Seth Fiur, Om Alladi, David Heck, Peter Fishkind, and Ariella Muller, paralegals Marjorie Petraro and Jesse Feldstein and project assistant Alex Volpicello.