I recently received a letter from Valerie Seeley, who is imprisoned at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York State’s maximum-security prison for women. She had been told that Governor Andrew Cuomo was going to start granting clemencies and asked if I would write to him on her behalf.
I met Valerie Seeley last year while writing about domestic-violence survivors incarcerated in New York State. Years earlier, Seeley had been living with a boyfriend who had grown more and more abusive since she had moved in. After three years of verbal, emotional, and physical violence, Seeley finally had enough and told her boyfriend that she was leaving. He tried to strangle her with a telephone cord. When she tried to escape through the front door, he threw her against the bathroom door, wrapped his hands around her neck and began choking her. Realizing that he would kill her, Seeley said that she began feeling around for anything that she could use to defend herself. She grabbed the first object she could and thrust it at him.
“I didn’t realize it was a knife,” she said. Nor did she realize at first that she had stabbed him. When she realized what she had done, she called 911 and tried to stop the bleeding. But her boyfriend died at the hospital. She is now 12 years into a prison sentence of 19 years to life. This is her second time applying for clemency.
State governors have the power to grant clemency to people who have been convicted under state law. Clemency can take two forms. A governor can choose to commute a person’s sentence, making that person eligible for parole earlier than her sentence date; in Seeley’s case, commutation might allow her to appear before the parole board seven years earlier. Alternatively, a governor can grant a pardon, allowing the conviction to be set aside, in some states wiping away a person’s criminal record.
During his five years in office, Governor Cuomo has granted five pardons—all to men who had already finished their prison sentences. Until recently, he has refrained from granting clemency to people still behind bars. The governor reversed course this past October, however, when he granted clemency to two people in prison—70-year-old Lydia Ortiz and 43-year-old Michael Correa. (Cuomo also granted pardons to two men who had already served their sentences). For Ortiz, who is now unable to walk without assistance, the governor’s action allows her to celebrate the holidays with family and friends—the first time she will be able to do so since her 1989 conviction for conspiracy and possession of a controlled substance. For Correa, convicted in 2010 of selling drugs to an undercover officer, clemency means that he will be able to spend the holiday season with his three children and three grandchildren.