CAIRO, Ill. — Although it happened nearly a half-century ago, that day in October 1964 when Ida Mae West-Clayton killed her husband has trailed her ever since. At times, it was only a gauzy memory; at others, it was as if it had happened yesterday. Either way, it was always there.
But earlier this month it all but disappeared when Gov. Pat Quinn granted West-Clayton, 68, a pardon and expunged her conviction.
"My daddy said when you get in trouble, it lasts forever. And that was true," West-Clayton said as she sat in the living room of her home in downstate Cairo, where she moved a few years ago after spending decades in Chicago. "Getting this pardon will help make it go away."
In many cases, pardons are controversial matters, raising political dust over who deserves them and who does not. In the 75 clemencies Quinn recently granted, West's case stood out as the oldest, a crime from one era that, by the governor's action, was forgiven in another era.
West-Clayton's request for a pardon was not opposed.
"It is a typical case in the sense that it was a crime that was committed some time ago and the person has integrated themselves back into society," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a clemency expert and associate professor of police science at Rock Valley College in Rockford who has written on pardons and commutations. "You have a good argument that she's been rehabilitated."
Indeed, West-Clayton has not been in any kind of legal trouble since her arrest in 1964 and her conviction the following April.
What's unusual in West-Clayton's case, Ruckman said, is that it involved a crime in which someone died.
West-Clayton was Ida Mae West in 1964, just 20 years old and pregnant with her second child. She and her husband lived on Chicago's West Side. Vanderbile West was a U.S. Army veteran who, according to West-Clayton's petition, liked to fight, especially when he was drinking. One day, he picked a fight with her and, according to the petition, said he was going to kick the baby out of his pregnant wife. He came at her several times. West-Clayton grabbed a small knife, which her husband had given her that day to protect herself, and hoped to scare him into leaving her alone.
But "he came at me again and just walked into the knife," West-Clayton said in her petition. "All I remember is him falling on the floor."
West-Clayton pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in exchange for a shorter sentence, a plea deal that seemed to recognize her husband's violence toward her and his role in his death. She served about 11 months in prison. She was on parole for about six months after her release.
In a photograph from around that time that hangs on her wall, West-Clayton is young and pretty, with a stylish haircut and an easy smile.
It was has been a lifetime since then. She had three more children. She obtained her GED. She took classes on having a positive attitude and, she said, always tried to have one, even when things were difficult for her, as they often were. She worked a series of jobs, including one at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center for 19 years, and became a supervisor before going on disability after a son was shot to death.
"She was constantly working hard, trying to improve herself," said Marjie Nielsen, director of the ex-offender advocacy program at the Chicago Legal Clinic, which represents the poor, and West-Clayton's attorney in her clemency petition. "She always carried her regret over her husband."
Even when someone discovered she had been to prison, it did not affect her job, in large part because it had happened so long ago.
That changed after she and her second husband moved to Cairo. A background check after she applied to be paid for watching children in Missouri, which is just across the river from Cairo, turned up the conviction and her application was denied. Forty years after she had paid her debt to society, she was confronted again with what she had done. She decided to try to take care of it in a more permanent manner and applied for clemency.
"You think you can put something like that behind you, especially something where you didn't intend to do it, like in my case," she said. "I felt like God forgave me for it. Why can't the state? God knows what happened and that it really wasn't my fault. I just wanted if off my record."
With Nielsen's help, West-Clayton filed her clemency petition in 2006. It is very much in her own words, the result of lengthy interviews Nielsen conducted with her with the goal of it sounding genuine rather than as if a lawyer had written it. West-Clayton then had a hearing before the Prisoner Review Board, which makes recommendations to the governor in clemency cases. The board's recommendations are confidential, but Daniel Kobil, a clemency expert, said that in nearly every way, West-Clayton's petition is the kind for which clemency is designed.
"You want people to be able to make their peace with the community once they've paid their price," said Kobil, a professor at the Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio. "It sounds like she's done everything she was supposed to do."
After the Prisoner Review Board hearing, West-Clayton waited. Then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who built up a large backlog of cases, never acted on her petition. West-Clayton lost hope. But Nielsen did not give up, encouraged by the fact that Blagojevich denied relief to many others but he never decided West-Clayton's case. At the same time, she never tried to offer West-Clayton too much hope; pardons, she said, almost always are long shots.
Then, after Quinn included West-Clayton's name on a list of petitions he had granted, the wait was over.
"I figured if it wasn't going to happen in a few years, it wasn't going to happen," West-Clayton said. "But it did. I'm not a murderer. I don't plan on hurting anyone. I don't plan on doing anything against the law."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun