prisons

Longest-Serving Woman Inmate’s Death Makes Her Case a Cause

The Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester.
The Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester. Photo: Google Maps

The longest-serving woman in New York state prison died this week nearly 40 years after she murdered an elderly Brooklyn couple.

For the couple’s daughter, the death of Valerie Gaiter came a week before the anniversary of the horrific crime, which she’s marked for years by replacing a container of dried rose potpourri petals to honor their memory.

For prison reform advocates, Gaiter’s death Tuesday at age 61 underscored the state Legislature’s inaction on a measure that would automatically grant parole hearings to all prisoners when they turn 55, if they have served 15 years or more.

Gaiter, who was sentenced to 50 years to life for the 1979 slayings, wouldn’t have been eligible for parole for more than another decade. Her clemency application to Gov. Andrew Cuomo was rejected, said David George, the associate director of Release Aging People in Prison, which plans a rally in Lower Manhattan Tuesday to bring attention to Gaiter’s death.

“This will be the fate of countless others if we don’t grapple with the need to reconsider the massive sentences that have been meted out to so many people,” said Steven Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the CUNY School of Law. “It’s cold, heartless, immoral, unmerciful and, to my mind, criminal.”

A Model Prisoner

Gaiter died Tuesday afternoon at Mount Vernon Hospital, said Thomas Mailey, a spokesperson for the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. She’d been sick with an undisclosed illness for about a year, Zeidman said.

In prison, Gaiter finished her high school education and obtained a college degree in calligraphy. She also trained puppies that were sent to wounded veterans.

Valerie Gaiter died after spending nearly 40 years in prison.
Valerie Gaiter died after spending nearly 40 years in prison. Photo: Handout

Her good behavior earned Gaiter a “super honor dorm” where she had a garden and her own room inside the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

Gaiter was 21 when she was charged with repeatedly stabbing Louis and Rose Feit inside their Ocean Avenue apartment during a robbery on Aug. 20, 1979. Louis, 80, was a retired principal with Parkinson’s disease, and Rose, 73, was a retired school teacher.

Roslyn Smith, 17 at the time, also took part in fatally stabbing the couple, her across-the-hall neighbors in their Flatbush building. Like Gaiter, she was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison. Smith’s sentenced was reduced and she was paroled last year.

Gaiter has said she started down a troubled path at age 15 when her older brother was killed.

Last year, the Feits’ daughter, Amber Grumet, told a City Limits reporter she was uncertain whether she wanted to see Gaiter and Smith released. But she did advocate for shorter prison sentences and more programming and counseling for those behind bars.

Grumet could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.

‘That Doesn’t Help the Families’

Many family members of murder victims are against ever seeing people like Gaiter released, said Beverly Warnock, executive director of the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children.

“Our families are relieved that they are in jail. It gives them the comfort to know they won’t have to see them again,” she said. “Their loved ones are never coming back.”

“Why should she have been released?” she asked. “Just because her age? Because she served too long? That doesn’t help the families.”

Louis and Rose Feit were killed inside their Ocean Ave. apartment during a robbery on Aug. 20, 1979.
Louis and Rose Feit were killed inside their Ocean Ave. apartment during a robbery on Aug. 20, 1979. Photo: Courtesy of Amber Grumet

Prisoner advocates note that multiple studies show there’s little risk that elderly prisoners will commit new crimes if they are set free. About 1.5% of murders annually are committed by people who are 75 years and older.

Still, for thousands of prisoners, many of whom committed murder, their only chance at freedom is a commutation by the governor.

State prisoners have filed at least 6,489 applications for reduced sentences since 2016 after the governor announced a more merciful approach to deal with clemency submissions, THE CITY reported earlier this month.

Cuomo has so far granted 18 commutations, far fewer than prisoner advocates expected.

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