Dear Mr. President,
When I read about a woman dying in a Florida prison, refused release on humanitarian grounds and facing a slow death by starvation, I wanted to navigate away from the page, to forget the story and to write about something else tonight. But I can't. Betsie Gallardo, born HIV+ and impoverished in Haiti, was sentenced in 2008 to 5 years in prison for assaulting an officer with a deadly weapon, a charge based on the fallacious premise that she could spread HIV to a police officer by spitting on him. Gallardo had been repeatedly sexually assaulted by a police officer in Haiti and had an intense, emotional reaction to the arrival of an officer at the scene of a car accident. She had no previous criminal record. She has since been diagnosed with terminal cancer and is no longer able to digest food. The state has refused requests from her family for release on humanitarian grounds and also refused to allow them to be with her when she dies.
Mr. President there are rapists and drug dealers and no shortage of white-collar criminals who serve far less than 5 years in prison for far worse crimes. The outrageous nature of this charge, which was certainly exacerbated by Gallardo's HIV status, is compounded with the truly cruel treatment of a dying woman and her family. How is this justice? How is a system that can look so dispassionately at the suffering of a human being the best that we can do in America? I don't approve of what she did, but this sentence (especially in light of her cancer) is stark evidence of the racism and irrationality that infect our criminal justice system. How am I supposed to feel good about sending the shoplifters I catch to a system so obviously broken? How are we supposed to criticize Iran or China for human rights abuses when we allow things like this?
You might throw up your hands and say it's a state issue, but you probably have a more direct means of reaching Governor Crist than Gallardo's family. Pick up the phone and ask him to pardon her, allow her to die at home with her family and her freedom. No reasonable human being believes she deserved a death sentence, but that is exactly what her punishment has become. The entire system needs reform, and that will take time, but right now one woman deserves a different fate. Please do the right thing.
If I have readers in Florida, I urge you to contact Governor Crist and the rest of the Executive Clemency Board:
Charlie Crist, Governor of Florida
Bill McCollum, Attorney General
Click here to e-mail Mr. McCollum
Charles Bronson, Commissioner Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Alex Sink, Chief Financial Officer Florida Department of Financial Services