Hours before leaving office, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday granted clemency to six people, including the driver in a fatal 1981 armored truck robbery in Rockland County whose release was championed by his son, San Francisco’s top prosecutor.
David Gilbert, 76, is serving a life sentence for his role in the $1.6 million theft that left a guard and two police officers dead. Through Cuomo’s action, he will be referred to the state parole board for potential release, the governor’s office said.
Gilbert’s son, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, said in a statement that he was "overcome with emotion" upon hearing the news, which he said comes a day before his first child is set to be born.
Get Tri-state area news and weather forecasts to your inbox. Sign up for NBC New York newsletters.
"He served 40 years in prison — nearly my entire life. I am so grateful for this moment and am reminded of the many other families praying for their loved ones' return," Boudin's statement read. "My heart is bursting, and it also aches for the families of the three victims. Although he never used a gun or intended for anyone to get hurt, my father’s crime caused unspeakable harm and devastated the lives of many separate families. I will continue to keep those families in my heart; I know they can never get their loved ones back."
Steve Zeidman, the lawyer and law professor who spearheaded Gilbert’s clemency campaign, said he was overjoyed for Gilbert and his family.
"David has an opportunity to make his case to the board, an opportunity to live outside the prison walls," said Zeidman, co-director of the Defenders Clinic at the City University of New York’s Law School.
Others were not as thrilled with the news. Rockland County Executive Ed Day said that Cuomo "once again debased himself and the Office of the Governor of the State of New York" by granting Gilbert clemency. The fatal robbery took place in the Rockland County town of Nanuet.
"As if victimizing 11 women, including members of his own staff, was not despicable enough his commutation of the 75-years-to-life sentence of David Gilbert is a further assault on the people of Rockland and New York State. Andrew Cuomo continues to focus on the well-being of murderers rather than the victims of these horrible offenses," Day said in a statement. "My thoughts, prayers and sympathy are with the friends and families of the victims of the 1981 Brinks robbery. As Andrew Cuomo leaves the Governor’s Office in disgrace I pledge to fight year after year to keep David Gilbert from ever being granted parole."
Thomas Walsh, the district attorney for Rockland County, similarly expressed outrage, calling it "a slap in the face to the loved ones left behind of this atrocity."
Gilbert was part of the radical "Weather Underground" group that targeted the Brinks armored truck at the Nanuet Mall. Nyack Police Sergeant Edward O'Grady, Officer Waverly Brown and Brinks security guard Peter Paige were killed during the heist. O'Grady's sister blasted Cuomo's decision to grant clemency for Gilbert, who was an unarmed getaway driver.
"Police officers are doing their jobs to protect citizens and he showed a total disregard by commuting his sentence," Mary Crowley said. O'Grady's nephew, John Hanchar, seemed to believe there were some politics behind the decision, saying "I'm not Chesa Boudin, I can't get a governor or president on the phone."
Members of O'Grady's family, including Crowley, said they plan to fight to get Gilbert's request for parole denied.
Four other men whose prison sentences were commuted Monday by Cuomo were also part of the CUNY clinic, Zeidman said. Together, those men have served 143 years behind bars on murder convictions.
Also Monday, Cuomo pardoned Lawrence Penn, a private equity fund manager who served two years for falsifying business records in connection with allegations he stole millions of dollars from investors.
Last week, Cuomo granted clemency to 10 people, including Jon-Adrian Velazquez, whose unsuccessful campaign for exoneration in the 1998 killing of a retired New York City police officer was championed by actor Martin Sheen.
Gilbert’s fight for freedom gained attention as Boudin, who was just 14 months old when he went to prison, campaigned last year for San Francisco District Attorney.
Boudin ran a progressive campaign in which he said visiting his parents Kathy Boudin and Gilbert in prison showed him the criminal justice system was broken.
In a news release, Cuomo’s office said that while locked up, Gilbert has made significant contributions to AIDS education and prevention programs, has worked as a tutor, law library clerk, paralegal assistant, teacher’s aide and aide in various prison programs.
Gilbert is among the last surviving people still imprisoned in the bungled 1981 Brink’s robbery north of New York City, often seen as a last gasp of ’60s radicalism. Under his sentence, he wouldn’t have been eligible for parole until 2056.
Brink’s guard Peter Paige and Sgt. Edward O’Grady and Officer Waverly Brown of the Nyack Police Department were killed in the holdup and ensuing shootout at a nearby roadblock.
Gilbert, an unarmed getaway driver, was charged with robbery and murder since people were killed during the crime. He and two co-defendants cast themselves as freedom fighters and deemed their trial illegitimate. At one court session, Gilbert and co-defendant Judith Clark raised their fists and shouted "Free the land!"
Clark was granted parole in 2019, three years after Cuomo commuted her sentence, noting her "exceptional strides in self development."