the plea
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patsy kelly jarrett: utica, ny
She insisted she was innocent, and the case against her was weak. But she faced a stark choice: If she rejected the offer of a guilty plea, she took a risk going to trial, possibly being found guilty and being sentenced to a far harsher prison term that would serve as a lesson to future defendants facing a plea choice.

Shes a religious womanGod wouldnt let her do it, it would be wrong, it would be lying, and she would rather stay where she was than commit fraud just to get out.

In 1973, 23-year-old Kelly Jarrett, a North Carolina resident, drove to Utica, New York with a friend, Billy Ronald Kelly, for a summer-long vacation. It was only when the police showed up at her door three years later, Jarrett says, that she learned that during their New York stay, her friend had robbed a gas station in a small town near Utica and had brutally murdered the gas station attendant, Paul David Hatch, a 17-year-old star athlete and high school graduate.

Kelly's fingerprints were found at the crime scene and the evidence against him was massive. But the evidence against Jarrett was weak. All it amounted to was the statement of an elderly witness who said he saw a car at the time of the crime with someone inside. He didn't know, however, whether the person was a man or a woman.

photo of the gas station

The crime scene

Jarrett was offered a plea of five to 15 years if she would plead guilty to just the robbery, not the murder. In those days, a plea of five to 15 years meant that absent any serious misbehavior, a person likely would be paroled at five years.

Jarrett told her attorney she couldn't plead guilty to a robbery she didn't commit. She went to trial -- a joint trial with Kelly -- claiming that she had nothing to do with either the robbery or the murder. As she told FRONTLINE, "I believed in the American system of justice. I really believed that you just tell the truth and the judge and jury will hear you and nothing will happen to you."

Jarrett was wrong. In March 1977 the jury found Jarrett and Kelly guilty of two counts of murder and two counts of robbery. They were sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Video Update:

At her first parole hearing in the spring of 2005, Jarrett was granted parole. She was released on June 13, 2005.

View here the video of her release. (It follows a short clip of Charles Gampero's release. He was also featured in the report.)



Ten years passed. Then suddenly, in 1986, Kelly Jarrett got another chance at freedom. Claudia Angelos, a young law professor at New York University, was running a law clinic in which some of her students went to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility to teach inmates about the law. Bedford Hills' superintendent pointed out Jarrett's case, saying he thought that she was innocent. Angelos became Jarrett's attorney and one of her law students, Abbe Smith, helped work on the case.

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Bedford Hills Prison

Angelos filed a writ of habeas corpus challenging the validity of the eyewitness identification by the elderly man. To her surprise and delight, the habeas was granted and the court said Jarrett was to be released or retried.

But there was a hitch. Angelos knew the state was going to appeal and the circuit court could very likely uphold that appeal. In the meantime, Jarret was offered a plea -- plead guilty to the robbery and the murder and she essentially would get time served and would have her freedom.

"She asked me what I would do," Claudia Angelos told FRONTLINE. "I told her I would take it. She asked, 'What if I don't?' And I said, 'I'll fight for you … we'll do our best, but we might lose.'"

Jarrett decided not to take the plea. "It's just morally wrong to say you did something you know in your heart you didn't do. I couldn't live with myself if I did that. I saw the pictures of the young man and … for them to want me to say that I did something so horrible just to get out of prison, I just couldn't do it."

"She's a religious woman," says Angelos. "God wouldn't let her do it, it would be wrong, it would be lying and [she said] that she would rather stay where she was than commit fraud just to get out. And I said I accepted her decision and then I left."

After Jarrett refused the plea offer, the state won the appeal and she has remained in prison to serve the rest of her sentence, which may be the rest of her life.

Since 1994 Abbe Smith, the law student who had worked on the habeas with Claudia Angelos, has been Jarrett's attorney. Smith says she would have strongly pressured Jarrett to take the appeal. "Most of us don't become criminal defense lawyers because we want to make innocent people plead guilty. But the system stinks and here's somebody who had been locked up for 10 years in a maximum security prison and everybody knew that the court of appeals was going to reverse. There is this one moment, this one opportunity to free her and I would have done everything within my power to get her to plead guilty."

photo of the application

An application for clemency

In 2003, after 26 years in prison, Jarrett got a hearing in front of the clemency board. The clemency was not granted. There was no explanation. Only two clemencies were granted that year by Governor Pataki; one went to the satirist Lenny Bruce who died 37 years before.

The first parole hearing for Kelly Jarrett will take place in 2005. But her dilemma may very well follow her. Parole boards expect admission of wrongdoing and expression of remorse. Locked up for almost 30 years for claiming that she is innocent, it would be hard to imagine Kelly Jarrett now saying she is not.

Update: At Jarrett's first parole hearing in the spring of 2005, she was granted parole. She will be released on June 13, 2005.


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posted june 17, 2004

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