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.


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.


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

Crime and Punishment Kathleen Talking News Prison and Criminal Justice

My Comments for Crime Victim’s Rights Week 2021

I was invited to participate at a media event in support of New York’s Fair and Timely Parole Act and the Elder Parole Bill as part of a 2021 Crime Victim’s Rights Week event on April 22, 2021. I was in an amazing lineup of speakers (mostly other women of color!) who broke down why so many of us who are survivors of violence want to see these laws pass.

Since this was for Crime Victim’s Rights Week and I knew legislators would be part of the event, I wanted to highlight their role in allocating money to resources that can support families affected by murder.

You can watch a recording of the full online press conference here. Here are my comments as I originally wrote them.

Thank you for including me today. I was born and raised in New York City, and when I was in between my sophomore and junior year at Stuyvesant High School in 1985, my brother was murdered, shot in the head at close range.

It was not here in New York City and I’m not going to go into all the details right now, except to say that eventually two people served sentences of 18 and 21 years for the crimes connected to his murder.

To describe it as a devastating loss to my family isn’t even enough. We were broken, and my mother was never the same again.

My brother, who was 20 years old when he was killed, lost the whole life he had ahead of him.

My whole adulthood I’ve been talking and listening to other family members of murder victims.

And, there’s one concern shared by most family members I have ever met: we want to support each other and we want there to be fewer families going through what we’ve gone through. We all generally agree that we should do anything and everything to prevent as many murders as possible.

Now, we don’t all agree about how to prevent violence, but we agree that it’s worth doing. On a basic level, I think it starts with making rational decisions about what situations put people at risk of violence and what interventions reduce violence in our homes and communities.

For decades, we’ve been fed a diet of easy answers: more cops, more jail beds, more prisons, more punishment. But we know that these things don’t equal safety. For my family, the long sentences people received for my brother’s murder didn’t translate to healing or support for our lives without my brother.

Now I will say that since the 1980’s we’ve seen more spending on survivor services, but it’s never matched the sort of money I’ve seen spent on punishment. Punishment gets the big bucks, then survivor services get the leftovers. I was on the staff and the board of a domestic violence program for years and we were always watching our pennies. There just isn’t enough investment in survivor services and there can’t be when we put them in line after punishment.

It comes down to being realistic about what survivors need and what will actually make a difference to serve survivors and prevent more violence.

When we’re talking about Elder Parole, and Fair and Timely Parole, these bills are about realistic assessments for safety. It’s about making decisions about why we’re keeping people in prison based on the present, not the past. It’s about fairness to the individual people involved, and I hate to put it in these terms, but it’s also going to save money. Money that then can be going to communities for prevention interventions and for survivor services that people need.

Before the murder of my brother, I would have said “lock ’em up and throw away the key.” But that was before I actually had to go through the experience of being in a family broken apart by murder, where most of my family members struggled to ever get support.

Now I see that the “lock em up” attitude means throwing away people, and throwing away money that we need for resources for survivors of serious and violent crime. I am one of the growing number of family members of murder victims who want systems that invest in real safety and support for our families, not just unending punishment.

We’re going to keep showing up, demanding real action for safety, and not just unending systems of punishment. Today, that means standing up for the Fair and Timely Parole Bill and the Elder Parole bill, and I hope both those bills pass in this session.

Thank you,

April 22, 2021

I included a screenshot of me Zooming into the press conference (with my COVID-hair) and behind me is a picture of my brother as a young boy. He and other members of my family are always with me in spirit as I speak up for new ways of defining justice and prioritizing healing.

You can join other events in support of Fair and Timely Parole or Elder Parole, this campaign is fierce and ongoing. I sincerely hope that 2021 is the year we win these changes so incarcerated folks can get home to their families, and we can start allocating more resources to everyone for healing from and preventing future violence.

Crime and Punishment Ending the Death Penalty Prison and Criminal Justice Things We Can Do

Pleading for a father’s life after a mother’s murder

I felt such a sense of horror when I read about a 14-year old girl who petitioned the state of Missouri asking them not to execute her father for the gruesome murder of her mother and sister. Her petition was turned down, and the state executed Richard Strong this week. The state willfully orphaned her, saying that this is what “justice” looked like, with the vocal support of some of her relatives.

It’s like a scene from some movie about a king or queen executing a peasant to show how powerful he is, and a child begging for mercy to no avail. Except that this is real.

Crime and Punishment Immigration News

“Criminals,” “Illegals,” “Terrorists” and #AllLivesMatter

My heart broke just a little bit more every time I saw the reactionary #AllLivesMatter hashtag. Because mostly, white people were using it as a rude rebuke to undermine the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. That’s sad on so many levels.

And of course, all lives do matter, so I think we should take over the #AllLivesMatter hashtag, — specifically, I think we should apply it to all online conversations about the use of torture by the government (like the recent revelations of the use of torture by the CIA).

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