This story was published by THE CITY in conjunction with the NYCity News Service at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.
Daniel Betancourt began playing the violin in 2015 while incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. (JP Chirdon)
Thousands of people incarcerated in New York State prisons are seeking the gift of freedom from Gov. Kathy Hochul this holiday season.
Many have spent decades behind bars and have little hope of ever being released if they don’t get clemency or a commutation from the governor.
Multiple studies show there’s little chance of recidivism for older prisoners. Criminologists say the likelihood of a person committing murder drastically decreases at about age 40, and that about 0.5% of killings each year are carried out by people age 75 and older.
Some desperate for an early release have been convicted of felony murder.
In New York and elsewhere, people can be charged with murder even when they don’t wield a weapon. They are considered responsible if the death occurs while they are committing another serious crime.
Canada and the United Kingdom have banned similar statutes, and multiple states, including Hawaii and Kentucky, have eliminated the charge. Critics contend the charge unfairly punishes criminal accomplices.
Criminal justice reformers are hopeful Hochul will take a more lenient approach than her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, who resigned in disgrace in August.
Thousands of clemency petitions offer a test of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s commitment to “improving justice.” In 2015, her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, vowed to overhaul the state’s clemency process but never followed through. (Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY)
In 2015, Cuomo vowed to overhaul the clemency process by reviewing the flood of applications four times a year, as opposed to just once, and making lawyers available to prisoners wanting to apply. He never followed through on any of it.
All told, he granted 31 commutations during his 10-plus years in office, shortening sentences to either provide for incarcerated people’s release or to make them eligible for parole hearings.
A Hochul spokesperson said the governor is dedicated to reforming the process but declined to detail how many applications were currently being reviewed by her office, the final stage in the process.
“While we cannot comment on pending clemency applications as the process is confidential, Gov. Hochul is committed to improving justice, fairness and safety in the criminal justice system, and we are reviewing applications in that context,” said the spokesperson, Hazel Crampton-Hayes.
Here are the stories of three incarcerated people behind the pending applications:
Playing a New Tune
Daniel Betancourt picked up the violin for the first time at Sing Sing Correctional Facility — a talent he went on to hone and cultivate from his prison cell for years.
The instrument has played a transformative role in his life, teaching him discipline and giving him a voice in a place where vulnerability is sometimes viewed as weakness.
Arrested at 19 and incarcerated for nearly 15 years, Betancourt has come of age in several of New York’s most notorious prisons.
As a teenager, growing up in Staten Island, Betancourt struggled with who he wanted to be. Raised in a Catholic family, with a corrections officer for a father, Betancourt said he was taught at home to be respectful, kind and law-abiding.
But the lessons didn’t always stick.
On the night of Sept. 2, 2006, Betancourt and two of his teenage friends, strapped for cash, decided to rob someone in his Mariners Harbor neighborhood.
Their victim was Ricardo Salinas, a 33-year-old restaurant cook. The father of two young kids was walking home when the trio targeted him.
Betancourt, the biggest of the group, put Salinas in a headlock as his friends searched the victim’s pockets. When Salinas fought back, the other two began brutally beating him, according to Betancourt.
Salinas was already suffering from an enlarged heart, and the attack triggered the onset of cardiac arrest, an autopsy determined. He died soon after.
Betancourt was arrested the next day and later charged with felony murder. He was eventually sentenced to 22 years to life for his role in Salinas’ death. His friends cut plea deals for robbery and are now out of prison.
“The feeling that I most felt back then was guilt and sadness,” he said. “Guilt for what I’ve done and the sadness that I hurt everybody — my family, the victim’s family, and nobody deserved that.”
With the support of his family and participation in programs like learning the violin with Sing Sing Correctional Facility’s Musicambia program, Betancourt has worked to come to terms with his mistakes and the effect they’ve had on others.
“It was very hard for me because I was there. I worked there. I was on the other side,” said Angel Betancourt, Daniel’s father. “For him to be on the inside, and me looking at him, it was very difficult.”
Daniel Betancourt sees the violin as a channel for navigating a complicated mix of grief, guilt and hope. His family and music teachers said they’ve seen Betancourt change for the better since he took up the violin in 2015 and learned a repertoire that includes classical numbers and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“You don’t see many leaders like him in our program because it’s usually the really loud confident people that tend to be the ones that take center stage,” said Nathan Schram, Musicambia founder. “He doesn’t lead that way, but people still listen to him and respect him and the way he leads through kindness.”
Betancourt has also inspired his teenage niece to play, via phone and jailhouse visits, and hopes to teach others upon his release.
“I’ve learned throughout the years to understand what I did, but you know I’ve tried to move forward — not forget what I’ve done but to move forward in a positive manner and try to relate to others that even though we did something wrong that we can try to do something better,” Betancourt said.
— Sahalie Donaldson and Emily Nadal
Shadowed by Tie to a Shocking Murder
Robert Webster had just turned 17 when he was arrested for firebombing a drug case witness’s Queens home at the height of the crack epidemic in 1987.
Convicted as a juvenile, he was sentenced 50-to-life for causing minor burns and property damage. That’s because the fire was linked, in the public eye, to the subsequent killing of a young police officer.
Webster has maintained his innocence since his arrest, and is applying for clemency with the hopes of reuniting with his family.
“I’m hoping that Governor Hochul will take into consideration…. my actual innocence claim, my age at the time, the amount of years that I have in prison, the accomplishments that I’ve done,” Webster said in a recent interview.
In 1987, a man who went by the name Arjune bought a home in Jamaica, Queens, blocks away from where Webster lived.
That November, Arjune reported local drug dealers to the police, leading to an arrest.
Around 4:30 a.m. the following morning, two men threw Molotov cocktails at Arjune’s home, causing small fires. Police reports said the damage was “not severe.”
Almost two hours later, the house was firebombed again. Arjune suffered light burns.
At trial, Arjune’s testimony that he saw Webster conflicted with a police dispatch call after the second bombing: Officers said the family “did not see a perp.” This call was not presented at trial.
An around-the-clock police detail was soon stationed outside the home.
Cops arrested Webster the next day.
Investigators found no fingerprints on the firebombs and did not test Webster’s clothing for gasoline.
On Feb. 26, 1988, shooters later tied to Queens drug trafficker Howard “Pappy” Mason killed 22-year-old NYPD officer Edward Byrne while he guarded Arjune’s home.
Webster, meanwhile, was in a city jail.
Byrne’s assassination horrified the nation. Frenzied media coverage often linked Webster to the killing.
“I just [got] caught in this whirlwind,” Webster said.
Webster, who still insists he is innocent, was tried for both bombings and convicted in August 1988.
“I have been in this criminal justice system for over 25 years,” Justice Thomas Demakos said at sentencing, “and this is probably the most shocking crime of all, the use of violence and force against witnesses in our criminal justice system. It reminds me of the drug kingpins in South America.”
Demakos sentenced 17-year-old Webster to two consecutive 25-years-to-life sentences, double the prison terms handed to the men convicted of killing Byrne, who received 25-to-life.
Seven months before the arson, Webster’s 2-year-old niece was killed in an accidental house fire.
“That’s one of the reasons why I have empathy for the Arjune family — because my family suffered from a terrible fire where we lost our niece,” he said. “It hurts me even more to think that somebody would think I would put their family through something like that.”
If released, the first thing Webster hopes to do is visit his father’s grave.
“I want to be able to go to that grave and let him rest in peace,” he said. “Let him know I made it home.”
— Anna Deen, Jeff Winter and Yessenia Moreno
Coming to Grips With Guilt
Darrell Powell didn’t kill Alfredo “Freddy” Piña.
He didn’t point the gun at the father of four, who was entering his home in Upper Manhattan. He didn’t pull the trigger. But he acknowledges his actions led to the murder, making him as culpable as the shooter who killed Piña.
Powell, 56, wrestled with conflicting feelings about his accountability during his nearly 25 years of incarceration — most recently at Sullivan Correctional Facility. During that time, he’s confronted the decisions that led to someone’s murder and sent him to prison.
In September 1997, a neighborhood drug dealer asked Powell to find someone to kill a man to whom the dealer owed money.
Powell didn’t think much of participating in a murder-for-hire scheme because he wouldn’t commit the killing himself.
The dealer offered $2,000 for the job, and Powell passed the offer along to his brother-in-law, Cedric Darrett, who compounded the tragedy by killing the wrong man, Piña, 43.
Powell was arrested for his role in the killing, convicted at trial and sentenced to life without parole.
At first, Powell says he blamed the court system, lawyers and co-defendants for his situation — everybody but himself.
But once he started his lifetime prison sentence, Powell started a journey of self-reflection that led to him accepting responsibility.
“At the end of the day, you go back to your cell … and it’s just you,” Powell said. “So you have to look in the mirror, and then you start realizing that all those people that you’re blaming, ‘What about you?’”
Powell reached that understanding through his job in the prison clinic, where he tended to dying inmates. The compassion and vulnerability required by his job pierced the emotional armor he wore to survive everyday prison life.
“You start realizing, ‘That could be me one day,’” Powell said. And as he sat with the dying men, he started thinking more about Piña’s death.
“Even though I wasn’t the trigger man, the role I played was more important,” Powell said.
Piña’s niece, Carmen Centeno, told the New York Daily News in 1997 that he was “a loving, caring person.”
“He had no enemies,” she said. “I don’t know why somebody would do this to him.”
Powell came to see the harm he caused not only Piña’s family, but to his own loved ones. He missed watching his daughter, now in her late 20s, grow up. He hopes to rebuild those relationships over time.
“This is something you have to face. You can’t run from it,” Powell said. “These are people you say you love? And how do you say you love them if you’re hurting them?”
Powell applied for clemency because he believes the accountability and remorse he feels show he’s deserving of freedom.
Among those rooting for him to return home is his fiancée, Lorene Wilson, whom he met when she accompanied his cousin on a jailhouse visit.
The couple has held off on marriage because of prison wedding capacity restrictions. They hope to wed outside of prison, surrounded by friends and family.
“She had the whole world out there to her choosing, and here it is, she chose me,” Powell said. “I have to repay her in a way that shows her my love and appreciation.”
– Jessica Lerner and Wyatt Stayner
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