Chesa Boudin, seen here in 2019, has said that his experiences visiting his parents in prison helped shape his political views. (Jim Wilson/New York Times)

Chesa Boudin, seen here in 2019, has said that his experiences visiting his parents in prison helped shape his political views. (Jim Wilson/New York Times)

Chesa Boudin on father’s clemency: ‘A tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders’

Opponents quickly seize on the moment

Just when District Attorney Chesa Boudin and his detractors could not seem further apart, an even wider schism seems inevitable. His father is getting a chance at freedom after serving nearly 40 years in prison for his role in the killings of two police officers and a security guard.

Outgoing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo granted clemency for David Gilbert, 76, as one of his last acts in office Monday, making Gilbert eligible for parole. He’s been incarcerated since acting as the getaway driver in a politically motivated robbery with his wife, Kathy Boudin, and other accomplices in 1981 that killed Nyack police officers Edward O’Grady and Waverly Brown, as well as security guard Peter Paige.

Chesa Boudin, 41, was elated by the news from Cuomo. It came just a week before he and his wife are expecting the birth of their first child. He was a year old back when his parents helped carry out the robbery.

“This is a tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders,” Boudin said Tuesday. “I had always thought my whole life about what it would mean for my children to have to get to know their (grandfather) only in the confines of a prison visiting room, only after passing through metal detectors and steel cages as I’ve done my entire life. Yesterday’s decision gives me hope that that won’t have to happen.”

But Boudin’s opponents also quickly seized on the moment. The San Francisco Police Officers Association called the decision “repugnant and an affront to civilized society” in a statement Tuesday, saying “Boudin continues to use his influence to lobby for his biological father’s release.”

Boudin reflected on the news and responded to the backlash in an interview with The Examiner. He and his opponents were already at odds, even before this latest development. A progressive prosecutor elected in 2019, his life story became an integral part of his campaign as he pledged to reduce mass incarceration and hold police officers accountable. But Boudin is also facing an attempted recall from those who believe he is making the streets less safe.

How are you feeling about the former governor’s decision?

I’m tremendously appreciative, just feeling a moment of gratitude for the act of mercy. I’m also of course reminded of the irreperable harm that was caused in many families in the commission of my parents’ crime, particularly the families that lost a loved one. I know that nothing can make their families complete again and I know that decisions like this can sometimes cause harm and reopen old wounds.

Have you spoken with your dad at length about his crime throughout the years and do you believe he regrets his actions?

I have and I know for certain that he does. He has consistently and for decades expressed his remorse, and his profound sense of grief at the lives lost, the harms caused and the damage done by the crime that he participated in.

How did you find out Cuomo granted clemency for your father?

I woke up yesterday morning and I said to my wife, today is the day. If it doesn’t happen today, it’s probably not going to happen for a long time, if ever, given the transition in power in New York and the way these things tend to work. As I was going about my morning meetings I had opened up the governor’s press page on my browser. In between every meeting I would hit refresh. I had just started a Zoom meeting (when) my phone rang and it was my mother. I know my mother is in San Francisco eagerly awaiting the birth of her first grandchild so I didn’t think much of the call and I sent it to voicemail. She texted me back, it was just six words. She said, “David was commuted! Eligible for parole.” I tried to hold it together and make it through this meeting (but) after a few minutes I realized I couldn’t. I ran to where my wife was working down the hall and I yelled out. She came running out of her home office space, and I told her. We fell into each others arms and didn’t have any words.

Chesa Boudin is pictured with his father David Gilbert in this undated image. (Courtesy photo)

Chesa Boudin is pictured with his father David Gilbert in this undated image. (Courtesy photo)

How long have you been fighting for this to happen?

My parents would say that in some ways I have been fighting for this my entire life. I would say this was something I turned my attention to in a more intentional way after my mother was granted parole in 2003. We didn’t formally apply for clemency for the first time until I believe 2010. Then we reapplied last year. Each clemency petition is a massive amount of work. When the governor decided not to grant my father clemency last year around Christmas, we received word that the governor’s clemency team had been really impressed. That they were genuinely open to the possibility of clemency and that he should reapply. And so we did at the beginning of this year.

Why do you believe that Cuomo, or his team, came to this decision?

I’m not going to speculate about all the different thought processes that were involved. I think the former governor understands that my father has demonstrated substantial evidence of rehabilitation and a commitment to his community. He had a 40-year run of incarceration without a single discipline violation on his record.

Do you believe the governor granting clemency for your father will have any impact on the recall attempt against you?

Being district attorney of San Francisco is the greatest honor of my life. I wake up every morning humbled by the opportunity to make difficult decisions with the singular purpose of advancing justice and safety in this city. Nothing is going to distract me from that mission.

What do you say to your opponents, like the SFPOA, who say your dad doesn’t deserve clemency, or people who believe that this is the result of you using your position of power inappropriately?

They have no idea what they are talking about. They don’t know my father and they clearly don’t know me.

What’s next in terms of the parole hearing? Are you expecting to argue on behalf of your dad?

There will be a parole hearing. We do not have a date yet. We are expecting it will be sometime in the next six weeks or so. I will not argue on behalf of my father, he has his own pro bono counsel who has represented him throughout this whole process.

What do you plan on doing if your father does get out of prison?

I’ve dreamed my whole life about simply being able to enjoy the daily pleasures with my dad. A home cooked meal. A walk in the park. And, of course, the opportunity to share my growing family with him. I haven’t thought beyond those mundane but critically important little things.

How confident are you at this point that he will be released?

Getting my dad to a parole board has always been the biggest hurdle to his release. He’ll go into his parole board with an outstanding prison record, impeccable. And with a strong re-entry plan, a dedicated and loving family, with zero risk of recidivism, and with the ability to contribute meaningfully to his community and to broader society. I’m confident the parole board will do the right thing.

Editor’s note: This conversation was edited for brevity.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

Chesa Boudin, left, shares a happy moment with his father David Gilbert. 
Courtesy photo

Chesa Boudin, left, shares a happy moment with his father David Gilbert.
Courtesy photo

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