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Crime and Punishment Prison and Criminal Justice

My OpEd in Support of David Gilbert

This piece ran in the September 12, 2021 Times Union, and they graciously agreed to let me republish it on my own website. David goes up for his first-ever Parole Board hearing on September 20, 2021.

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I am one of thousands of New Yorkers who support the release of David Gilbert from prison for his role in the failed Brinks robbery in 1981. I’m one of hundreds of people who have met and corresponded with him during his 40 years of incarceration.

But in many ways, I have more in common with family members of the victims of David Gilbert’s crime than with him. My brother was 20 years old and on active duty in the US Army in Germany in 1985 when he was executed by the Red Army Faction, a leftist political group who had “declared war” on the United States.

Although the details are different, the circumstances of my brother’s death are painfully similar to the deaths that David Gilbert was responsible for. As in the Brinks robbery, three people—none of whom were intentional targets of the planners—died violent deaths in circumstances that produced terror and injury to many others. These crimes are separated by years and thousands of miles, but they share some unique qualities.

In 2018, as part of my lifelong process of healing from the loss of my brother, and because David was in his own lifelong process of grappling with the impacts of his actions, we corresponded and agreed to meet. In his decades of incarceration, David had never spoken to someone whose experience so closely mirrored those of the families of the victims of the Brinks robbery.

I didn’t know what to expect when I went inside the prison to sit across a table from David. I was nervous, so I brought a trusted person with me. I found that David was thoughtful and willing to answer all my direct and painful questions about that day and his role in it. He asked me questions to understand my profound loss and what my family had experienced in the aftermath of my brother’s violent death.

From there, I went on to visit David a number of times pre-COVID. We talked about many things: our children and other family members, current events, books we’ve read. But every visit at some point would turn to our individual experiences with murder. We talked every time about the deaths from the Brinks robbery and he never shied away. He has accepted responsibility for his actions and lives with the permanent, damaging impact they have had on others. For me, David has a unique empathy for the loss of my brother that few people have. He is part of my community of support, of my lifelong journey to live with the permanent loss of my brother for someone else’s “revolution.”

As someone who still grieves my own loss deeply, I have to ask what purpose is served by keeping David Gilbert incarcerated. There’s no indication that he would attempt to harm anyone. He has recognized that his actions caused losses that are deep and permanent. His only interest is in living peacefully and in any possible repair he might make, whether directly or indirectly. While incarcerated, he has participated in countless volunteer opportunities to help other incarcerated people prepare for their return to their families and communities.

There are many ways my life is influenced by the sacrifice of my brother, who was killed on active duty because of what that represented to the people who killed him. My brother lost his life in defense of our way of life. Like my brother, who was willing to die for what he believed, I hold a deep commitment to people’s individual liberties, even in the toughest circumstances. I believe incarcerating someone must only be done for public safety. It cannot be done to send a political message, or to punish an individual just for the sake of punishment.

If David Gilbert posed a direct threat to anyone, I would not support his release. But David poses no threat to public safety. His recent clemency allows him to go before a parole board. That board should base their decision on their assessment of any risk he poses if released, not a review of the heinous and unchangeable nature of his crime.

The time has come for David Gilbert to live his life outside prison walls. I look forward to when he and I can sit at a kitchen table to continue our dialogues and together find ways to further heal and repair ourselves and our communities.

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This OpEd is also on the Times Union website. Photo of David Gilbert from Friends of David Gilbert.

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