In January, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo vowed to reform what he called the state’s “antiquated criminal-justice system,” and proposed a series of new laws that he said would “continue our historic progress toward a more equal society for all.” But one strategy was missing from his plan—something he’d previously suggested would be central to his push for justice: clemency.
Back in October 2015, Cuomo announced an initiative to find inmates whose sentences he could commute, and encouraged attorneys and law firms to help prisoners prepare petitions. The governor raised the hopes of incarcerated individuals across the state, but so far Cuomo hasn’t fully delivered. In December 2016, Cuomo granted just seven commutations. Still it was a record for him, and it did include one for domestic-violence survivor Valerie Seeley, who had been sentenced to 19 years to life for killing her abusive boyfriend. But then this past December, he reduced only two prison sentences.
Under the clemency project, Cuomo said he was looking for people who had served at least half of their sentence but would not appear before the parole board within the next year. Gordon Davis is one of those prisoners working with lawyers to have his sentence cut short. Davis was 16 years old in 1995 when he participated in an attack on his foster sister’s ex-boyfriend, who she said had beaten her badly enough to cause a miscarriage. The man was killed, and Davis, his brother, and his foster sister were arrested. Davis initially agreed to a plea in which, if he testified against his foster sister, he would be sentenced as a youthful offender. While he was testifying, his foster sister burst into tears. Davis refused to continue, which nullified the plea. He was prosecuted as an adult, convicted, and sentenced to 25 years to life.
During his 23 years behind bars, Davis, now age 38, has participated in various prison programs. He obtained not only his GED, but also his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, rare accomplishments given that many college-in-prison programs have been cut. His childhood social worker, with whom he is still in contact, and his college adviser both attest that he has outgrown the impulsive judgement of his teen years. “This is the first time I have felt compelled to fight to get one of the young men or women released,” his social worker said. “I firmly believe that Gordon should not have been in prison in the first place, let alone for as long as he has.” Should he receive clemency, his college adviser has even offered to open her home to Davis.