A Jewish radical jailed since 1981 could go free this year, following a rare commutation of her sentence by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Judith Clark, a veteran of the Weather Underground and other violent 1970s-era left-wing groups, drove the getaway car during the deadly 1981 robbery of a Brink’s armored truck in Nyack, New York, in which three men were killed.
Clark has been in prison since her arrest that year. In recent years, prominent New Yorkers and Jewish activists have called for her release, arguing that she had changed dramatically during her decades behind bars.
Cuomo met personally with Clark in September, according to a report in The New York Times.
“When you meet her you get a sense of her soul,” Cuomo told the Times. “Her honesty makes her almost transparent as a personality. She takes full responsibility. There are no excuses. There are no justifications.”
In the last days of December, Cuomo cut Clark’s minimum sentence from 75 years to 35 years, making her eligible for parole in 2017.
The radicals who robbed the Brink’s truck in killed a guard and two police officers, and seriously injured another guard. Many of the people involved in the robbery, including Columbia professor Kathy Boudin and Mutulu Shakur, the stepfather of rapper Tupak Shakur, have either been released from prison or are already eligible for parole.
Though she was not accused of pulling a trigger, Clark was charged with murdering the officers and the guard. She insisted on representing herself at a trial in New York State criminal court, and was sentenced to 75 years to life in prison.
A lengthy New York Times Magazine profile in 2012 traced Clark’s development in prison, from angry young radical to a prison leader. She has earned a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science and a master’s degree in psychology. She ran prison AIDS education programs and a prenatal course. She has refused to be identified as a political prisoner.
Clark has also written on Jewish issues, and contributed to a collection of essays by women on the Passover Seder.
In her meeting with the governor, Clark reflected on what drove her to take part in the Brinks robbery.
“It wasn’t just, ‘I drove the car’ — it was how she got to that place,” Cuomo told the Times. “The psychological underpinnings and immaturity. The zealotry that answers all questions. It was purpose, it was heaven, it was hell, it was God.”
The president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, Ed Mullins, slammed the commutation. “It is a slap in the face to the law enforcement community,” Mullins told the New York Daily News.
In an interview with the local television station FOX5 NY, Cuomo said he was just giving Clark a chance.
“I am not releasing her, but I am giving her the opportunity to give her case,” he said. “People change in 35 years.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.