[Ppnews] Lorrie Sue McClary Free at 46

Political Prisoner News PPnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Oct 27 13:02:45 EDT 2005

Put in prison at 16, she's free at 46
When punishment goes beyond justice
- Joan Ryan
Thursday, October 27, 2005

The four-page letter, on pink lined paper with schoolgirl penmanship, 
arrived in the newsroom eight years ago.

"Hi!" it began, as cheery as a postcard from summer camp.

Lorrie Sue McClary, inmate W-13181 at Valley State Prison for Women in 
Chowchilla, went on to tell a tale that raised questions about the purpose 
of prison, the concept of justice and the imbalance of a legal system that 
sent a 16-year-old girl to prison for decades while letting her adult 
co-defendant go free after four years.

On Monday, after 30 years behind bars, McClary finally went free. She 
walked through the prison's front gates, wearing civilian clothes -- a 
black skirt and blue top -- and climbed into a car without shackles for the 
first time since she was a round-faced teenager.

"It's more than you can describe,'' she said by phone Tuesday from her 
parents' home in Coulterville, east of Modesto in Mariposa County. She 
barely slept Monday night, she said, staying awake to read the cards and 
letters welcoming her home. When it began to rain, she opened the window to 
smell the air, the first time she had opened a window in three decades.

She is 46 now, but her cravings on Monday were still a teenager's: She 
wanted pizza, Pepsi, peanut-butter-fudge ice cream and something she had 
only heard about -- cable television.

"I feel like I'm starting my life from scratch,'' she said. "I returned to 
planet Earth finally, and I want to know what this planet is all about.''

When I first met McClary, she was sitting across a Formica table in the 
cafeteria-like visitor's room of Valley State Prison for Women. She was 37 
at the time, hard-looking, pasty and overweight from a thyroid condition 
and two decades of prison food. She had been locked up 21 years, convicted 
at age 16 in the strangling death of a 79-year-old widow in San Bernardino 
County. She was the youngest female in California ever to go directly into 
an adult prison.

She said she had confessed to the crime at the urging of her troubled 
23-year-old boyfriend and co-defendant -- who McClary said was the actual 
killer -- because he told her she would be tried as a juvenile and receive 
a light sentence.

"I thought I was in love with him,'' she said with the flat, matter-of-fact 
tone that came from repeating the details so many times over the years. He 
pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, testified against her and served 
just four years.

McClary, on the other hand, was still sleeping in a prison cell two decades 
later, rising at 5:45 every morning, reporting to her job making 
eyeglasses, writing letters to media and politicians to plead her case, 
moving from one empty day to the next.

"I take responsibility for what I did,'' she told me. "But I'm not guilty 
of murder. I've done my time. I've done every single thing they've asked me.''

The State Board of Prison Terms granted her release this summer and set the 
date for last Friday, her 46th birthday. But bureaucratic red tape delayed 
her release until Monday. But when her parole officer showed up at 8 a.m. 
to drive her to her parents' house, officials said the paperwork still 
hadn't arrived. They told her she wasn't going anywhere, triggering 
memories of that awful day in 1998.

The parole board had granted her release that spring, citing her exemplary 
behavior, a rare letter of recommendation from the prison warden and even a 
letter of support from the slain widow's son. "Twenty-two years is 
enough,'' he wrote. Pete Wilson, California governor at the time, had 30 
days to veto the release. On the 29th day, after McClary had begun sending 
boxes of her belongings home with her mother, Wilson overruled the board.

So McClary took nothing for granted as she waited Monday morning for her 
official release. At midday, the paperwork finally arrived, and her parole 
officer drove her to her parents' house in Coulterville, east of Modesto, a 
house McClary had never seen. They had moved there 17 years ago to be 
closer to the prison. On the trees lining their street, her family had tied 
yellow ribbons. They hung a "Welcome Home'' banner over the front door and 
invited friends and neighbors for a party.

McClary said she plans to learn medical transcription and work from home. 
She wants to garden and paint. She wants to learn how to drive again. She 
has been cuddling her sister's dog, a small pleasure she missed for 30 
years. She plans a trip to Costco this week to see for herself the enormous 
stacks of goods her mother has been telling her about.

I can't say I ever saw Lorrie Sue McClary as a tragic figure. She was an 
accomplice to a murder. But her story made me question the purpose of 
keeping someone like her locked up for so long, someone who is as 
rehabilitated as a person can get in prison. It made me wonder about a 
system that would be so certain that a 16-year-old girl, rather than a 
repeat-offender 23-year-old man, was the mastermind behind a murder and 
check-forgery scheme. It got me thinking about whether justice is only 
about punishment, or if justice is also about acknowledging when punishment 
should give way to common sense and compassion.

McClary has heart problems, osteoporosis, asthma, back pain and arthritis. 
She is significantly overweight from her thyroid condition and three 
decades of prison food. She isn't likely to be a threat to anyone. She is 
where she should be, at home, with her aging parents, figuring out who she 
is now, a full-grown woman marveling at the joy of opening a window.

E-mail Joan Ryan at joanryan at sfchronicle.com. Her column will run on 
Thursdays while she is on assignment.

Page B - 1
URL: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/10/27/BAGHGFEEJV1.DTL

©2005 San Francisco Chronicle

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