Case of a Lifetime

By Abbe Smith
Sunday, June 29, 2008

I was in my second year of law school when I met Patsy Kelly Jarrett. It was autumn 1980. We shook hands and sat together in the visiting room of the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, in Westchester County, N.Y. I was 24; she was turning 29. She didn't seem to mind that I was still in law school and younger than she was. Maybe she had no choice: She needed help, and services provided by the New York University prison law clinic were free. A pretty tomboy with a fresh-scrubbed look and a soft Southern accent, she said her friends called her Kelly, not Patsy. She had come to despise the name Patsy because it summed up too precisely what had happened to her in the summer of 1973 -- her first and last adult summer vacation.

Kelly was serving a life sentence for robbery and murder. At her trial, the prosecution had maintained that she had acted as a getaway driver while her traveling companion, a man named Billy Ronald Kelly, killed a 17-year-old gas station attendant in Sherrill, N.Y., on August 11, 1973. A witness testified that he saw Kelly at the scene behind the wheel of a car that matched the vehicle that she owned, and in which she and Billy Ronald had driven north from her home near High Point, N.C., earlier that summer. At her trial, as she would before and after, Kelly said she was innocent.

Kelly's case, my first, would end up following me for the next 25 years. Kelly was convicted based on nothing more than the memories of that one eyewitness, who saw the driver of the car fleetingly and, when first questioned, couldn't even say whether the person had been a man or a woman. It remains the most haunting miscarriage of justice I have ever encountered.

Yet the case haunts me in another way. At least twice, Kelly was given the chance to plead guilty and dramatically reduce her sentence -- to as little as five or 10 years. She refused; she said she couldn't swear to something she didn't do. She should have.

Patsy Kelly Jarrett and Billy Ronald Kelly met in High Point in the fall of 1972, when they were working at the same textile mill. They were introduced by mutual friends who knew they were both gay. When Billy Ronald, who was about eight years older than Kelly, suggested they visit his friends in Utica, N.Y., the next summer, Kelly didn't think twice. She was headed to New York -- an exciting destination for a small-town girl.

They traveled in Kelly's car, a metallic-blue Plymouth Road Runner with silver-slotted mag wheels and a slightly jacked-up rear. Feisty and fast, it was the perfect car for a working-class tomboy.

Once in Utica, Kelly and Billy Ronald made themselves part of the gay community. There was a gay bar, the Hub, and a bartender named Gerri. Before long, she and Kelly became lovers. Kelly spent most of her days with Gerri and her nights at the Hub. On weekends, she watched Gerri play with a women's softball team. The days blended together. Kelly has always wished she could remember more.

Billy Ronald took up with William Sullivan, a girlish man in his 20s with shoulder-length brown hair. Billy found a job working construction. The arrangement between him and Kelly was that he'd pay for their lodging in exchange for the use of Kelly's car. Kelly would live off her savings.

Their time in Utica came to an end in mid-August 1973, when Kelly ran out of money. She bid a tearful farewell to her summer love and headed back home. Billy Ronald decided to go with her.

On the way, there was one strange incident: At a Kayo gas station in Danville, Va., Kelly awakened, alone, thinking she'd heard a backfire. Billy Ronald came back to the car agitated, his hand cut. Asked what had happened, he told Kelly to mind her own business. Groggy, she went back to sleep. She and Billy Ronald parted ways once they got home.

Some months later, two Virginia State Police officers contacted Kelly. The "backfire" had been a shotgun blast, killing the Kayo's attendant. A witness had gotten her car's plates. Horrified, Kelly identified Billy Ronald and agreed to testify against him. Billy Ronald pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 35 years. The Virginia authorities -- not known for their leniency -- did not believe Kelly to be an accomplice.

Two and a half years after that, there was another knock on Kelly's door. Two New York State Police officers told her she was wanted for the August 11, 1973, murder and robbery of 17-year-old Paul David Hatch.

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