By Bob Ortega, The Arizona Republic
PHOENIX - After 49 years behind bars, the nation's longest-serving female inmate is free.
Betty Smithey, 69, whose prison term began following her conviction for the murder of a 15-month-old Phoenix girl in 1963, appeared at a parole hearing Monday morning and by that afternoon walked, with the aid of a cane, out of the gates of the Perryville state prison.
"It's wonderful driving down the road and not seeing any barbed wire," Smithey said by phone as she traveled with relatives to her niece's Mesa home, where she will reside. "I am lucky, so very lucky."
"Like I told the (parole) board, I know it's going to be a big adjustment, but I'll take it and I'll make good," she said.
Members of Arizona's Board of Executive Clemency agreed that Smithey had proved she is no longer the troubled woman who at age 20 murdered Sandy Gerberick on New Year's Day 1963, while working as the family's live-in baby-sitter, or the woman who that same year threatened to kill herself after being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Board members voted 4-1 to grant an absolute discharge, not only freeing Smithey from prison but also any community supervision.
Smithey became eligible for discharge after Gov. Jan Brewer granted her clemency in June, reducing her sentence to 49 years to life.
"I really see no value in keeping you in prison any longer. I really see no value in keeping strings on you any longer," Parole Board Chairman and Director Jesse Hernandez told Smithey before voting to grant her discharge.
Monday's vote was a rare occurrence. Sentenced to life before August 1973, Smithey was numbered among the so-called "old-code lifers" who are eligible for parole only if first granted a commutation by the governor. She is only the third such inmate to be granted clemency since 1989.
In 1994 and 2003, boards recommended clemency for Smithey only to have first Gov. Fife Symington and then Gov. Janet Napolitano deny it.
Last spring, not long after the board unanimously recommended clemency for Smithey, Brewer replaced three of its five members; on Monday, the new members in particular sought reassurance that Smithey doesn't pose any danger of violence. Much of their questioning of Smithey, her attorneys and supporters and psychiatrist Elizabeth Kohlhepp focused on Smithey's youthful mental state, whether the board could be sure she'd changed, and whether she could handle the stress of returning to the outside world after five decades.
As the deciding vote came down in her favor, Smithey crossed herself and looked down briefly as if in disbelief that the moment had finally arrived.
Smithey endured a horrific childhood of abandonment, abuse and mistreatment by foster and adoptive parents, creating, Kohlhepp said, a fragile youth with poor coping skills who became psychotic under extreme stress.
In her early years in prison she was rebellious and troublesome, escaping four times from three different prisons between 1974 and 1981.
But Kohlhepp, who evaluated Smithey's mental health in 2003 and again recently, said that over the decades Smithey worked hard to transform herself.
"She has no risk factors for violence," said Kohlhepp. "She doesn't have a criminal mind-set."
The key moment, said Smithey, came in 1983 when she received a letter from Emma Simmons, Sandy Gerberick's mother, forgiving her for the crime.
"She made me feel that I wasn't a monster," said Smithey. "I felt if she could forgive me for taking her child's life, I could forgive myself. It was my responsibility to try to become a better person than I was."