Outgoing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo used his final hours in office to grant clemency to six men, including former Weather Underground member David Gilbert, who was sentenced to 75 years to life in prison for his role in a 1981 robbery of an armored truck that left a security guard and two police officers dead. Gilbert, who is 76 years old and has been incarcerated for four decades, will now be able to apply for parole. “Now it’s a matter of hoping that the parole board will do the right thing,” says Steve Zeidman, Gilbert’s lawyer, who also represents four of the other men granted clemency. “They recognize the harm, the trauma and the grief that their actions caused. … They have done everything a human being can do to repair and atone while inside.” Zeidman and other advocates are still pushing for the release of hundreds of others, saying “the list is eternal.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Here in New York, Kathy Hochul was sworn in as New York’s first-ever female governor early Tuesday after outgoing Governor Andrew Cuomo’s resignation took effect at midnight last night, after a state attorney general report found he sexually harassed at least 11 women. Cuomo used his final hours in office to grant clemency to six men: David Gilbert, Greg Mingo, Robert Ehrenberg, Ulysses Boyd, Paul Clark, and Lawrence Penn, who received a full pardon.
The most high-profile case was that of former Weather Underground member David Gilbert, who was sentenced to 75 years to life in prison for his role in the 1981 robbery of an armored truck to expropriate money for the Republic of New Afrika that left a security guard and two police officers dead. The police union and some members of the victims’ families lobbied heavily to fight Gilbert’s clemency. He’s 76 years old, has been incarcerated for 40 years. He’ll now be able to apply to the parole board for his freedom.
Gilbert is the only person connected to the crime who is still [incarcerated in New York]. In 2016, Cuomo also commuted the 75-year sentence of Judith Clark, who was released on parole in 2019. Kathy Boudin was paroled in 2003.
Gilbert and Boudin are the parents of Chesa Boudin, who is currently the district attorney of San Francisco. Chesa Boudin tweeted Monday night, quote, “My heart is bursting. On the eve of my first child’s birth, my dad–who’s been in prison nearly my entire life–was granted clemency. He never intended harm, yet his crime devastated many families. My heart breaks for the families that can never get their loved ones back,” he said.
While in office, Governor Cuomo granted 41 clemencies, including 20 during the pandemic — far fewer than many other governors.
For more, we’re joined by David Gilbert’s lawyer, Steve Zeidman, who is co-director of the Defenders Clinic at the City University of New York’s Law School, CUNY’s Law School. Four of the men whose prison sentences were commuted Monday by Cuomo were also part of the Defenders Clinic.
Steve, welcome to Democracy Now! Let’s start with David Gilbert. Explain what exactly Cuomo has done, what this clemency, this commuting of his sentence, means.
STEVE ZEIDMAN: Sure. When any governor — in particular, Andrew Cuomo — when they grant clemency, they have two options. And this is by way of a sentence commutation. So, what he did for David is he commuted the sentence, making David immediately eligible for parole. The other four men whose sentences were commuted received what is essentially time served, meaning they’ll be home within about two or three weeks, once the Department of Corrections handles some paperwork. But David — I mean, we are grateful, thrilled, overjoyed that David has the opportunity to make his case before the board, but that’s what it means. That parole interview will be arranged within the next, hopefully, several weeks.
AMY GOODMAN: So, he will then go before the parole board. Now, Judith Clark also went before the parole board, and she was denied first time around, right?
STEVE ZEIDMAN: Yeah, that’s correct. And that’s still a concern. It’s exactly what Cuomo did with Judy, commuted the sentence from 75 to life to essentially what is approximately 35 or 36 to life. And since the minimum has been served, you’re eligible for parole. And now it’s a matter of hoping that the parole board will do the right thing.
AMY GOODMAN: Governor Cuomo noted Gilbert’s convictions, quote, “were related to an incident in which he was the driver, not the murderer,” and said in a statement, quote, “While incarcerated, Mr. Gilbert has made significant contributions to AIDS education and prevention programs; he has also worked as a student tutor, law library clerk, paralegal assistant, a teacher’s aide, and an aide for various additional facility programs.”
Also, RAPP responded, and I want to go to that clip right now. The Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, RAPP, said in a statement, “Incoming Governor Kathy Hochul will inherit an indefensibly racist and brutal prison system and we are hopeful that she will lead our state toward a more humane system of justice for marginalized New Yorkers by using her clemency powers and championing parole reform.”
So, if you can talk about both? You clearly have been lobbying for David Gilbert and others, and you’ve had enormous success at this point. Right before Cuomo left, it was not only David Gilbert, and we’ll talk about the others. What is it that did it this time?
STEVE ZEIDMAN: Oh my. You know, if we could put our finger on exactly what it is that leads to clemency, that would be — that would just be remarkable. And I say that because the five men who had their sentences commuted, they are emblematic of — and this is not hyperbole — thousands, thousands of others in New York state prisons alone. So, is it age? I mean, the average age of the five men whose sentences were commuted is 65 years old. They’ve collectively served almost 200 years in prison. They have vast amount of support inside and outside. So, from my perspective, I’m obviously thrilled their sentences were commuted yesterday, but it begs the question of: Why wasn’t it two months ago, two years ago, 10 years ago? How much time must somebody serve?
So, I agree with my friends from RAPP. I’m hoping that Governor Hochul will take a look at clemency, take a look at the problem of mass incarceration, and say to her and her staff, “You know what? We want to do clemency on a rolling basis. We want to do it throughout the year, not just once at the end of the year or not just when I have one foot out the door.” So that’s my hope. Take a look at the remarkable 41 people who have been released through clemency. Look at the lives they are leading, the remarkable work they’re doing, frankly, just living their lives with their families and friends. So, I am cautiously optimistic.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the other men who Cuomo granted clemency to yesterday? Of these six, you represented how many?
STEVE ZEIDMAN: The five men whose sentences were commuted were all clients of the Defenders Clinic at CUNY Law School.
AMY GOODMAN: And then there was a sixth, who was pardoned entirely.
STEVE ZEIDMAN: Correct.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about them. If you can talk about Greg Mingo, Robert Ehrenberg, Ulysses Boyd, Paul Clark, Lawrence Penn, who received the full pardon?
STEVE ZEIDMAN: Sure. It’s my pleasure to speak about them. I am almost at a loss for adjectives. These are just remarkable, beautiful, wonderful, extraordinary men, who have devoted their time inside to repair, to transformation. Maybe perhaps the best word to describe is “mentor,” because all of them have spent so much time with younger people coming into prison, talking with them, understanding how people came to be where they are, and also trying to figure out how to build a better path for the future, so that they’re men who have remained optimistic, forward-thinking, within the incredibly — you know, stating the obvious — harsh confines of prison. They’ve all suffered incredible losses while inside. I’m thinking of Paul Clark, his beloved mother, who visited him for 40 years, who passed away. I know all of them have experienced that kind of loss.
And I’ll say one other thing about them, as well. Certainly for some of the men there, there are profound issues of innocence and whether they were wrongly convicted — no question about that — cases that have been investigated. But for all five men —
AMY GOODMAN: All convicted — all convicted of murder.
STEVE ZEIDMAN: Yes, that’s —
AMY GOODMAN: Of course, for these long sentences.
STEVE ZEIDMAN: Yes, correct. And the average sentence — I mean, we’re talking 50 to life, 58 to life, 75 to life — draconian sentences unknown in any other industrialized nation. So it cried out, frankly, for clemency.
But the point I also want to make is that — and I know, I’m speaking on behalf of all of them, just to reiterate one thing that comes up all the time — the remorse they carry is so deep and genuine and profound. When you meet each of them, it’s the first thing they talk about, no matter what you ask them. They’ve recognized the harm and the trauma and the grief that their actions caused. But I guess the most important thing is they have done everything a human being could do to repair and atone while inside.
AMY GOODMAN: All the other men are African American.
STEVE ZEIDMAN: Correct. Oh no, no, I’m sorry. Bobby Ehrenberg is not.
AMY GOODMAN: Except for him.
STEVE ZEIDMAN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Were there others on your list? And what happens now?
STEVE ZEIDMAN: The list is eternal — not an understatement. There are 30,000, 35,000 people in New York state prison. And I wish we would get to a place where we could annually review all 35,000 and just say, “What purpose is served by this person remaining in prison?” And if we took that approach and really put the burden on the Department of Corrections or the local prosecutors to explain why they believe it is necessary for someone to remain in prison — if we did that, I think we could finally seriously rectify and redress mass incarceration.
So, what’s next? We have about 40 pending clemency applications. We’re about to file another dozen. Come January, we’ll work with another 10 to 15 people. But I want to emphasize it’s a drop in the bucket. It’s a drop in the bucket because, again, we’re talking about thousands and thousands of people, who I think, from any objective, reasonable assessment, no — I mean, I say “no longer should remain in prison.” Frankly, for a number of them, you have to scratch your head and wonder why they’re behind bars in the first place.
AMY GOODMAN: RAPP’s slogan is “If the risk is low, let them go.” Explain, Steve.
STEVE ZEIDMAN: Oh sure. You know, it’s one of the few things that is agreed upon in criminology, sociology, this adage that people age out of crime. It’s been proven over and over. You can look, whether — you can look at New York, the people who have been released. No one has been arrested for anything.
I think the better example, frankly, is look at Pennsylvania, where there were close to 500 people who were sentenced to life without parole when they were teenagers, 17 and under. And according to the Supreme Court, mandatory life without parole for young people was unconstitutional. So, I think it was 469 have been released over the last several years. I believe the recidivism rate hovers at about 1%. So the risk is — it’s even beyond low. There is no risk.
Again, it gets back to the question: What purpose is served by keeping people in prison as they age? And frankly, the only answer I think anybody can give is for those who are interested in eternal punishment. That’s the only purpose. I hope we’re better than that.
AMY GOODMAN: So, as we wrap up now, again, for David Gilbert, when does he go to the parole board?
STEVE ZEIDMAN: Well, if Judy Clark’s example provides us some guidance, it will be within the next two, three months. I’m hoping it will be expedited as much as possible. David turns 77 in November, has been incarcerated for 40 years. So, obviously, this interview can’t happen soon enough.
AMY GOODMAN: Gilbert survived COVID?
STEVE ZEIDMAN: He did. He did indeed. And as you mentioned before, I think David’s release — I mean, what could be more appropriate? Because David devoted so much time and energy with other men inside to develop training programs about AIDS prevention for people who are incarcerated. It no doubt saved countless lives of people inside and outside. So, in the midst of a pandemic for David to receive clemency, just ideal. Absolutely ideal.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much for being with us, Steve Zeidman, lawyer for David Gilbert and a number of the others who were granted clemency by outgoing Governor Cuomo hours before he left Albany. Steve Zeidman is with the Defenders Clinic at CUNY Law School and a professor there.