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Nation's longest serving female inmate up for parole

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Nation's longest serving female inmate up for parole

CREATED Aug 9, 2012

Reporter: Claire Doan

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) –  It’s a story about a horrible murder, a rare act of forgiveness and maybe a second chance at life.

Betty Smithey, 69, the nation’s longest serving inmate, is up for parole. Governor Jan Brewer finally granted Smithey clemency after nearly five decades in prison. Two former Arizona governors declined her plea.

In 1963, Smithey strangled and killed a 15-month-old whom she was babysitting for a family in Phoenix.

Andy Silverman, Smithey’s defense attorney since the 1970s and professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, said she had a tough upbringing. Smithey's father died when she was four and her mother gave her up because they were poor. Smithey also survived abuse, polio and rickets as she went from orphanages to foster homes. She has always been in an institution, Silverman told 9 On Your Side.

Smithey still got into trouble after she was convicted and sent to prison, escaping several times and continually having disciplinary problems. She said her turning point came in 1983, when Erma (Gerberick) Simmons – the mother of the baby – sent a letter forgiving her for the murder.

She said that’s when she came to a deeper understanding of her life and stopped acting out.

“Before then, I could hardly look at myself in the mirror because I was so ashamed of what I did,” Smithey told KGUN9 News, saying it allowed her to forgive herself. “I was so guilt-ridden and stricken. Then what I got the letter I was shocked.” 

Silverman said allowing Smithey to spend the rest of her life free will send a strong message – and added that a psychiatrist who evaluated Smithey said she is no longer a threat.

“Whatever we do with Betty, unfortunately we cannot bring back the child who was killed. Now I think we as a society need to deal with Betty,” he said. “She’s been in prison for 49 years. She’s no longer a risk. She has health problems. In the last decade or so, Betty has proven to be someone deserving of a second chance.”

Smithey said she committed a monstrous act, but is not a monster: “I don’t excuse what I did and I never will, but it was one moment in time. Why should one incident in a person’s life define what that person is?”

When asked about why she killed the baby or what happened that day, Smithey responded that she could not discuss that before the hearing.

"You can't feel sorry for yourself. You just have to change who you are and change your circumstances," Smithey said.

The five-member Arizona Board of Executive Clemency will decide Smithey’ fate on Monday, August 13.

Silverman said if granted parole, Smithey will live with her niece in Phoenix. Smithey said she plans to give back to the community with volunteer work.