Arizona woman Convicted of First Degree Murder released from prison after 49 years after a unanimous decision in her favor, according to reports After 49 years behind bars, the nation’s longest-serving female inmate is free.
PHOENIX (AP) — A woman who was convicted in the 1963 murder of a child, was released from the custody of Arizona prison after 49 years after the state’s clemency board agreed she had proven she is no longer the troubled woman.
Betty Smithey was twenty when she was arrested in the killing of 15-month-old Sandy Gerberick, less than a week after she was hired to care for the child as a live-in baby sitter in northwest Phoenix. Upon investigation, the authorities determined the girl had been strangled to death. In that same year, she also threatened to kill herself after being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Smithey, now sixty nine years old, walked out of the gates of the Perryville state prison earlier this week on Monday with the aid of a cane, according to a press release report by the Arizona Republic.
A jury convicted Smithey of first-degree murder. She was sentenced to life without parole, under laws that make her parole-eligible only if the governor commutes her sentence. Between the years 1994 and 2003, boards recommended clemency for Smithey only to have first Governor Fife Symington and then Gov. Janet Napolitano deny it. Smithey became eligible to be released from prison after Gov. Jan Brewer granted her clemency in June, which led to a reduction in her sentence to 49 years to life.
Much of the debate the board members of Smithey indulged in, her attorneys, her psychiatrist Elizabeth Kohlhepp and supporters focused on revolved around Smithey’s state of mind. They deliberated whether there was some improvement over the years, whether she had come out of her youthful mental state, whether the board could be sure she had changed, and whether she could handle the stress of returning to the outside real world after being imprisoned behind bars for five decades.
“I really see no value in keeping you in prison any longer. I really see no value in keeping strings on you any longer,” Parole Board Chairman and Director Jesse Hernandez told Smithey before voting to grant her release. Board members voted 4-1 to grant an absolute discharge, not only freeing Smithey from prison but also any community supervision.
Andy Silverman, a University of Arizona law professor who has known Smithey since working on an appeal for her in 1971, said, “I’ve changed over those 41 years, and I can assure the board that she has as well. She’s a good and caring person. She always shows more interest in others than in herself.”
Sentenced to life before August 1973, Smithey was numbered among the so-called “old-code lifers” who are eligible for parole only if first granted a commutation by the governor. She is only the third such inmate to be granted clemency since 1989.
Fortunately for her, after Monday’s vote, Smithey was hopeful again. After the announcement of the poll turning in her favor, she seemed unable to register the decision expressing utter belief. After a while, Smithey smiled and waved to her supporters, mouthing “thank you” and then clutching her niece in a tearful hug. Smithey shook each board member’s hand and expressed her gratitude before being led into the prison to prepare for her release. Family members said they painted and decorated a room for her to live in.
“It’s wonderful driving down the road and not seeing any barbed wire,” Smithey said by phone as she traveled with relatives to her niece’s Mesa home, where she will reside. “I am lucky, so very lucky.”
According to court documents and psychiatric evaluations, Smithey had endured a troublesome childhood of abandonment, abuse and mistreatment by foster and adoptive parents, creating, Kohlhepp said, “a fragile youth with poor coping skills who became psychotic under extreme stress.”
In her early years in prison she was rebellious and difficult as she made an attempt at escaping four times from three different prisons between 1974 and 1981. However, Kohlhepp, who evaluated Smithey’s mental health in 2003 and again recently, said that over the decades Smithey worked hard to transform herself.
“She has no risk factors for violence,” said a confident Kohlhepp. “She doesn’t have a criminal mind-set.”
The significant moment, said Smithey, came in 1983 when she received a letter from Emma Simmons, Sandy Gerberick’s mother, forgiving her for the crime.
“She made me feel that I wasn’t a monster,” said Smithey. “I felt if she could forgive me for taking her child’s life, I could forgive myself. It was my responsibility to try to become a better person than I was.”