More than 1,200 people behind state prison bars are seeking the gift of freedom from Gov. Kathy Hochul this holiday season.
All told, there are 832 pending requests for sentence commutation and 450 pardon applications awaiting the governor’s signoff, according to Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for Hochul — a year after the governor vowed to overhaul the clemency system.
But Hochul hasn’t issued a single commutation or pardon since that December 2021 announcement, in which she promised to release prisoners on a rolling basis.
“It’s one of the few powers that the Governor has that they don’t need the legislature, they don’t need a commission, they don’t need a task force,” said Steve Zeidman, an attorney who has multiple pending clemency cases.
“They have the power to grant clemency in the constitution,” Zeidman said. “So from my perspective, use it. It should be an obligation.”
He and other advocates noted that last year Hochul promised an advisory panel of “impartial experts” to guide her on early releases — but it didn’t get started for months.
The panel began meeting in October but it doesn’t include any formerly incarcerated people as initially promised.
And the panel’s meetings — and agenda — are all behind closed doors.
Crampton-Hays did not respond to questions from THE CITY inquiring whether the panel will make its recommendations or meeting details public.
“Clemency applications contain sensitive information about applicants, victims, and others involved, and applications and deliberations are confidential and always have been,” she said. “We strive to provide as much information as we can, like numbers of applications, without infringing on the privacy of applicants or the confidentiality of the process.”
Chances at Freedom
For Victor Clemente Jr., 68, the dream of clemency is one of his only chances at freedom.
The former Queens resident is serving 20 years to life in prison for fatally shooting a neighbor in Fresh Meadows, Queens during a dispute over a plane ticket to the Philippines in 1986. He shot the victim, Fred Drapete, 32, nine times, according to the Queens district attorney’s office.
Clemente was originally set to go to trial March 31, 1988, but the case was dismissed on a technicality after the trial judge ruled that prosecutors failed to bring the charges according to the required timeline.
Shortly afterward, Clemente moved to California in search of work and a new life. But the second-degree murder charge against him was reinstated following an appeal by the prosecution.
Clemente and his supporters say he had no idea there was a warrant for his arrest for 18 years, noting that he lived openly in San Francisco and filed his taxes annually.
Authorities caught up with Clemente in 2006 when he was fingerprinted as part of his job at a state hospital, according to his family and defense team.
He was returned to Queens on Dec. 8, 2006, and sentenced two years later. He’s first eligible for parole in October 2025, according to the state prison website.
In prison, Clemente has “dedicated himself to self-improvement” and was a model citizen before he was brought back to Queens, his clemency application says.
“My father is getting older now and we are just telling him to take one day at a time because we don’t know what else to do,” his daughter, Victoria Clemente, told THE CITY on Monday. She maintains her father had no idea there was an open warrant for his arrest.
“He’s not a threat to the public,” said his lawyer, Ted Hausman.
“You have to ask the question for someone who is aging in prison who is 68 years old, what is the purpose of them remaining in prison when they have led an exemplary life following the crime in the community and in prison,” added Hausman, a supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society who handles clemency cases.
For some serving lengthy sentences, clemency is the only way they may be freed, said Caroline Hansen, a community leader for Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) who is also advocating for her husband, Kristian Hansen, 46.
He’s serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the 1996 shooting of cab driver Santo “Sammy” Cassaro during a robbery in Albany.
“Without clemency he will die in prison,” said Caroline Hansen. “Now with the holidays approaching this is our only chance for him to come home.”
The Pen Is Mightier
Hochul has taken some positive steps to improve the clemency process, according to advocates for people behind bars.
She has added executive chamber staff to review filings, streamlined the application process and responded via letters to all applicants, according to the governor’s office.
As for the advisory panel that finally launched this fall, Hochul is working to finalize the addition of a formerly incarcerated person on the panel, according to her spokesperson.
The group currently includes: Kathleen Gerbing, the former superintendent of Otisville Correctional Facility; L. Priscilla Hall, a former New York state appeals judge; Rev. Christopher A. House, founder and senior pastor of Christian Community Church of Ithaca; Gerald Mollen, former Broome County district attorney as well as former acting director of the state’s Office of Forensic Services; Seymour James, a criminal defense attorney who has handled wrongful conviction and civil rights cases; and Karen Ziegler, director of the Albany County Crime Victim and Sexual Violence Center, a crime victim assistance program.
Meanwhile over the summer, 15 people who have been granted clemency in the past came together to create what they call the Clemency Collective to urge Hochul to issue more releases.
Their supporters note that they’ve all thrived since being released from prison. Many have teamed up with nonprofit groups to assist incarcerated people and their families.
None of the people given clemency during the Cuomo administration have gotten into trouble with the law, said Zeidman, who represented several of the formerly incarcerated.
“I don’t think anybody’s gotten a parking ticket,” he said. “What they are doing is they’re taking care of loved ones, which is critical in the COVID era.”
Some are working for nonprofit groups involved with during- and post-conviction life, such as Fortune Society, Osborne Association, Hour Children, and the Legal Aid Society, he added.
“There’s no threat to public safety whatsoever that’s been documented by every study ever done when people have been in so long,” Zeidman said. “It’s just about being afraid of granting clemency and being excoriated by some people in the press or by some right-wing politicians.”
This time of year is particularly difficult for families with loved ones behind bars, said Jose DiLenola, RAPP’s clemency campaign director, who was jailed at the age of 16 and served 26 years for strangling a friend’s sister.
“It’s the so-called clemency season, which is an extremely hard time for families,”
“And then you have to wait for the governor to wave her mercy wand and let your loved one out,” he added. “And most of them don’t get the good news.”
Meanwhile Hansen and others with loved ones locked up are praying Hochul does more this holiday season and on a rolling basis throughout the year.
“She can reunite families with the stroke of a pen,” she said. “I just feel that everyone deserves a chance. I feel like my family and others like mine deserve hope and all we are asking for is a chance.”
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