San Francisco DA seeks clemency for his father, ’60s radical David Gilbert
Paul GrondahlNov. 24, 2020ALBANY
— When Chesa Boudin was growing up, both his parents were serving long sentences in New York state prisons for their roles in a 1981 armored Brink’s truck robbery in Rockland County that left two Nyack police officers and a security guard dead.
Family friend Jeff Jones brought the youngster on prison visits to see his father.Boudin was raised by adoptive parents and the boy left each prison encounter struggling to process feelings of sadness, anger and confusion over his powerlessness to change a criminal justice system that broke his family apart.
“I had a lot of emotional issues growing up because the nature of incarceration creates distance between family members,” conceded Boudin, 40, who was elected District Attorney of San Francisco a year ago after a career as a public defender and champion of alternatives to incarceration.
Now, Jones, 73, of Green Island, an environmental consultant, is joining forces with Boudin and international religious leaders including the daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to seek mercy from the governor. The coalition is urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo to grant clemency to Boudin’s father, David Gilbert, because his age elevates the risk he faces from COVID-19.
Gilbert is 76 years old and has been incarcerated for 39 years. He is serving a 75-years-to-life sentence for felony murder and robbery. Gilbert is confined at Shawangunk Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Ulster County, 80 miles south of Albany. He is one of the oldest and longest-serving inmates among the state’s roughly 38,000 inmates. Gilbert is not eligible for parole until 2056, when he would be 112 years old.
“I would urge Governor Cuomo to look closely at the man that David has become and how he has demonstrated rehabilitation and remorse,” Jones said. “It’s a waste of taxpayer money to keep him in prison after almost 40 years. He is not a threat to anyone.”
Jones and Gilbert were members of the Weather Underground, a leftist militant group formed in 1969 to oppose the Vietnam War, fight for black liberation and overthrow American imperialism. The FBI described them as a domestic terrorist group. Members included Jones’ wife, Eleanor Stein, 74, a retired administrative law judge, and Boudin’s mother, Kathy Boudin, 77, convicted of the same charges as Gilbert and released from prison on parole in 2003. She now works as an adjunct professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work and is co-founder of its Center for Justice there.
Advocates for Gilbert’s clemency note there have been more than 3,400 confirmed coronavirus cases and 23 deaths among inmates and staff in the state’s prison population, according to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. As of Nov. 20, there were 101 reported positive cases of COVID-19 out of 353 tests among inmates at Shawangunk, including one death. His son said his father has underlying health conditions that put Gilbert at high risk for contracting the deadly virus.
“I’m worried my father could die of COVID-19 in prison. He has always expressed great remorse for the victims and he has never tried to deny or minimize the role he played in a serious crime,” Boudin said by phone from San Francisco. “There is no compelling reason for my father to remain incarcerated.”
As an elected prosecutor, Boudin has a unique perspective. His mother and father were in a transfer truck waiting for the getaway car carrying the robbers after a 1981 Brink’s heist of $1.6 million at the Nanuet Mall. His mother, Kathy Boudin, received a sentence of 25 years to life after hiring a lawyer, pleading guilty and accepting a plea deal, while his father, who was not a lawyer, defended himself and went to trial.
“My father was not present in the courtroom for much of the trial and nobody advocated for him, which is why it is a bad idea to represent yourself,” Boudin, the prosecutor, said. “My mother and father did the exact same thing and had identical culpability in the crime. My mother served 22 years in prison and was paroled 17 years ago, while my father is still in prison. It’s an example of criminal justice imbalance.”
Boudin believes his father is perhaps the only person his age who has served as many years in state prison who was unarmed during the commission of the crime. Another Brink’s robbery co-defendant, Weather Underground member Judith Clark, who drove the getaway car, was granted parole in 2019 after Cuomo commuted her 75-years-to-life sentence in 2016. Prosecutors and law enforcement bitterly opposed her parole and called it an insult to the victims’ family members.
“My father is the last one in,” Boudin asked. “This governor already granted clemency for Judith Clark, he’s aware of my father’s case and he’s shown mercy previously. I am hopeful Governor Cuomo will show courage and mercy again.”
The Weather Underground formed on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan in 1969, an offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS. Gilbert and Jones were both involved in SDS efforts and met in 1967 at Columbia University at an anti-war event. The predominantly white Weather Underground activists allied themselves with the Black Panthers and other radical groups. They considered violence – including a campaign of bombing public buildings in response to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War – a viable means to achieve their political ends.
The group took its name from Bob Dylan’s 1965 song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and the lyrics: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Jones and Stein were fugitives from justice in the early 1970s for their involvement in the Weather Underground and raised their son under aliases. Jones lived as John Maynard and worked as a printer in Manhattan and his wife was Sally, a secretary. They were caught after Jones was busted in Hoboken, N.J. for growing marijuana on the roof of their apartment building.
Jones and Stein were not directly involved with the Brink’s robbery and were living in an apartment in the Bronx, figuring out how to negotiate turning themselves in, when the FBI smashed in their apartment door in 1981 and agents took Jones away at rifle-point. Their son, Thai Jones, 4 at the time, recounted the harrowing scene in a 2004 book he published about his parent’s leftist politics, titled “A Radical Line.” Charges were dropped against Stein and Jones was sentenced to community service and worked in an emergency room in a Harlem hospital and drove a school bus in the Bronx.
Jones and Stein led an effort in 2010 for Gov. David Paterson to grant clemency to Gilbert near the end of his term, but failed. Since Cuomo took office in 2011, he has reduced the number of inmates statewide by more than 30 percent and closed 15 prisons – in contrast to his father, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, who oversaw the largest expansion of the prison system in the state’s history.Since 2016, state prisoners submitted more than 6,500 applications for reduced sentences to Cuomo. The governor has executive clemency powers of commutation – shortening the sentence to allow for an earlier parole hearing or immediate release. Cuomo has granted clemency to 104 individuals in nine years, compared to Gov. Hugh Carey’s 155 in eight years and Gov. Mario Cuomo’s 37 in 12 years.
“I would urge Governor Cuomo to listen to a son’s emotional appeal and grant clemency to David Gilbert,” Stein said.