Friday, July 13, 2012

Arizona: Clemency from Brewer?

Bob Ortega of the Arizona Republic is reporting on the case of 69-year old Betty Smithey, who has served 49 years of a "life sentence without the possibility of parole." Smithey was convicted for the murder of a child in 1963. Requests for clemency have been denied by two previous governors and Smithey now deals with the likes Jan Brewer, "who has granted the fewest clemency requests of any Arizona governor in the past 20 years."

Smithey's father died when she was 4 and the State of Oklahoma declared her mother "unable to take proper care of her seven daughters." So, Smithey was separated from her sisters and became a "ward" of the state. She was was adopted at 8, then returned after being "physically abused." Smithey "survived polio and rickets" and "struggled with a speech disorder." She was also "legally blind." In addition to being "beaten by foster parents and in several institutions," she had been " sexually assaulted" and attempted suicide. By the time she was 16 years old, she had spent time in the Oklahoma State Hospital for the Insane and her mother had died of tuberculosis. 4-year juvenile prison sentence for kidnapping (of an infant) followed. At the age of 20, Smithey received a life sentence for the murder of a 15-month old child she was baby-sitting. Ortega writes:
Nearly five decades later, Smithey remains imprisoned at Perryville. She is, by all accounts, a different woman and not just by virtue of the fact that she'll turn 70 this fall ... She enrolled in self-improvement classes. She read the Bible. She earned her GED and went on to complete 52 hours of college credit before the Department of Corrections canceled the program. She published several poems as part of a 1993 prison-writing workshop, also now discontinued. Smithey also gradually weaned herself from the anti-psychotic medications she had been taking since entering the prison system. By 1992, she had shown such signs of progress that the clemency board recommended to Gov. Fife Symington that he commute her sentence to make her eligible for parole. Symington denied her commutation without comment in early 1994. In 2003, another clemency board unanimously recommended to Gov. Janet Napolitano that she commute Smithey's sentence to make her eligible for parole. 
That is all fine and well, but the "political nature of clemency decisions and a growing reluctance by governors in Arizona and nationally to grant clemency made Smithey's supporters skittish." Some, for example, have expressed fear "that any publicity could hurt Smithey's chances."
"Politically, if you're a governor, it's easier not to take a chance," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political- science professor at Rock Valley College in Illinois who tracks the clemency and pardon process nationwide. People often have the misconception that granting clemency means letting a violent criminal out onto the street, he said, whereas almost all clemency grants are for non-violent crimes or, as in Smithey's case, when there is strong evidence that, in the decades since the crime, the person has taken significant steps to rehabilitate him or herself and merits being granted what amounts to an act of grace. But, Ruckman said, because those misconceptions make many in the public indifferent or hostile to the idea, nowadays granting clemency amounts to an act of courage for a governor. "Unfortunately, most of them err on the side of doing nothing," he said. 
Read the entire article here

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