Professor Abbe Smith’s "Case of a Lifetime": The Final Chapter

January 19, 2017 —

Professor Abbe Smith Professor Abbe Smith

Readers of Abbe Smith’s book Case of a Lifetime: A Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Story (Palgrave MacMillan, 2008) know the story of this Georgetown Law professor’s career-long defense of a woman imprisoned for more than 28 years. Smith first met Patsy Kelly Jarrett, then 29, in a New York prison in 1980 when Smith was a 24-year-old law student at New York University and Jarrett was serving a life sentence, convicted as an accomplice in the murder of a gas station attendant. 

The murder was committed by Jarrett’s acquaintance during a road trip in the summer of 1973, and Jarrett never wavered in her assertion that she was not present at the scene. After Smith became her lawyer, Jarrett was offered a plea deal twice — and against Smith’s advice, she turned both deals down, refusing to admit to a crime she did not commit.  

In December 2016, more than 40 years after the crime that would shape the destinies of both women, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo granted a pardon to Jarrett, now 64. The petition, of course, was drafted by Smith.

“I have been a criminal lawyer since graduating from law school in 1982,” Smith wrote as she told Jarrett’s story and her own. “First I was a public defender, working to ensure that what happened to Kelly did not happen to anyone else. Then I became a criminal law professor, teaching students about people like Kelly who get caught up in the system…Kelly’s case, my very first, remains the most haunting miscarriage of justice I have ever encountered.” 

Throughout her long incarceration, Jarrett worked in the prison infirmary as a caretaker for terminally ill inmates suffering from AIDS and cancer. Since her release on parole in June 2005, she has resided and worked at the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, caring for ill and elderly nuns. With this pardon, she plans to attend nursing school and obtain a nursing license to expand her employment opportunities.

“Clemency is meant for the most extraordinary and deserving individuals that dedicate their lives to the greater good,” said Smith, who directs the Criminal Defense & Prisoner Advocacy Clinic at Georgetown Law. “After spending nearly 30 years in prison, Patsy Kelly Jarrett has continued to live a life of service on the outside. Everyone whose life she touches is the better for it. I could not be more grateful to Governor Cuomo for exercising his executive power for such a worthy person.”

For information about Smith's book, click here. To read her account in a past issue of Washington Post Magazine, click here.