At age 69, Betty Smithey learned that sometimes you really do get a second chance.
On Monday, the nation’s longest-serving female inmate used a cane to walk carefully out the front gates of an Arizona state prison, where she had spent 49 years for the 1963 murder of a child.
The reason: A parole board decided that after nearly half a century behind bars, she wasn’t the same troubled person who had strangled a 15-month-old baby. And for the first time in several tries, a sitting governor agreed.
A frail-looking Smithey waved to her supporters, mouthing, “Thank you,” according to the Arizona Republic. Then, after clutching her niece in a tearful hug, she shook each board member’s hand and thanked them.
“It’s wonderful driving down the road and not seeing any barbed wire,” Smithey told the Republic by phone as she traveled with relatives to her niece’s Mesa home, where she will reside. “I am lucky, so very lucky.”
At age 20, Smithey was charged with killing Sandy Gerberick, less than a week after being hired as a live-in babysitter in northwest Phoenix. She was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.
Defense attorneys say Smithey endured a harsh childhood of abandonment, abuse and mistreatment by foster and adoptive parents, creating, many said, a fragile young woman with poor coping skills who became psychotic under extreme stress.
In her early years in prison she was rebellious and troublesome, escaping four times from three different prisons between 1974 and 1981.
Decades later, she proved to be a model inmate, worth another shot on the outside, supporters said.
In 1994 and 2003, prison officials recommended clemency, which was rejected by two governors – Fife Symington and Janet Napolitano.
Then, in June, Gov. Jan Brewer reduced Smithey’s sentence to 49 years to life, and granted clemency.
That was a rare occurrence. Having been sentenced to life before August 1973, Smithey was numbered among the “old-code lifers” who are eligible for parole only if first granted commutation and clemency by the governor. She is only the third such inmate to receive clemency since 1989.
Matt Benson, a spokesman for Brewer, told the Los Angeles Times that the governor “has granted clemency to prisoners in a number of instances, generally near the end of their lives, so this one is different in that regard.”
Before Smithey’s release from the Perryville state prison, parole board members focused on whether she truly had changed and whether she could handle the stress of returning to the outside world after 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, according to the Republic.
Donna Leona Hamm, executive director of the prison reform group Middle Ground, said her organization had worked for 24 years to secure Smithey’s release. “Unfortunately, if Betty were sentenced for the same crime today, she would have to serve her entire term,” she told The Times. “Arizona has toughened its laws.”
Leona Hamm said she and numerous other supporters were at the prison for Smithey’s release.
“It was heart-rending, unbelievable. It all moved so quickly. At 9 a.m., when the [parole] hearing began, she was still a prisoner serving a life sentence. By 4 p.m., she was walking out the prison gates with a couple of boxes, a completely free woman.”
For Smithey, the key to her eventual turnaround came decades ago, in 1983, when she received a letter of forgiveness from Emma Simmons, the dead girl’s mother.
“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.”
At her release, Smithey crossed herself and looked down briefly as if in disbelief. She later told reporters: “Like I told the [parole] board, I know it’s going to be a big adjustment, but I’ll take it and I’ll make good."