Kathy Boudin — the 1960s radical and member of the leftist militant group Weather Underground who spent more than two decades in prison for the role she played in a deadly robbery, then went on to become a prominent advocate for criminal-justice reform — has died at the age of 78. Her death was confirmed Sunday by her son, San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin. “My mom fought cancer for seven years in her unshakably optimistic and courageous way,” he said in a statement. “She made it long enough to meet her grandson, and welcome my father home from prison after 40 years.” Her fellow radical Bill Ayers posted a tribute on his website on Sunday as well.
Boudin first came to national attention as a member of the Weather Underground, the violent splinter group that grew out of the campus organization Students for a Democratic Society in 1969. The following year, five Weather Underground activists had been building bombs (intended for Columbia University and Fort Dix) in a townhouse at 18 West 11th Street that was owned by the family of one member of the group, Cathy Wilkerson. On March 6, 1970, one of the bombs went off prematurely, killing three of the five Weathermen in the house; Boudin and Wilkerson survived. (The house was completely destroyed; its replacement breaks the street line, hinting at the disruption that occurred there.) Boudin, who claimed for the rest of her life that she’d never built or planted any bombs, lived on the run for more than a decade thereafter.
In 1981, she helped carry out an armored-car robbery in Nanuet, New York, along with her partner, fellow Weather Underground member David Gilbert. Amid the heist, their accomplices, who included other former Weathermen and members of the Black Liberation Army, shot and killed a guard and two police officers. Boudin and Gilbert, who had left their infant son, Chesa, with a babysitter before the robbery, were both arrested the same day.
Boudin ultimately pleaded guilty to robbery and second-degree murder in exchange for a sentence of 20 years to life. (Gilbert was convicted on three counts of murder and sentenced to 75 years in prison, but Governor Andrew Cuomo, in one of his last acts before resigning last year, partially commuted his sentence, making him eligible for parole.)
Boudin expressed contrition at her trial and thereafter, telling The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert in 2001 that her ignorance of the degree of violence around her actions was “sick,” while also ducking some of the harder questions that Kolbert put to her.
While incarcerated, Boudin was a model prisoner, taught literacy, advocated for inmates with AIDS, and earned a master’s degree in adult education. After serving 22 years of her sentence, she was paroled in 2003. Boudin continued working with AIDS patients, then earned a doctorate in education from Columbia University Teachers College, and was eventually named an adjunct professor at the Columbia School of Social Work — which, like her release from prison, was a bright red flag to the law-and-order right. Boudin never stopped advocating for the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, and later became the co-founder and co-director of the Center for Justice at Columbia University.