In a year in which our justice system has seemed increasingly fractured, dysfunctional and often prejudiced, something remarkable happened Wednesday in Niantic: mercy won out over retribution. There, in the J.B. Gates Correctional Institution, a young woman incarcerated for nine years at nearby York prison, was granted clemency after serving half her 18-year sentence for a crime she committed when she was 17.
Down meandering, wooded North Bride Brook Road, in a room with an optimistic mural of the State Capitol painted on its cinder block walls, nearly 200 members of Connecticut’s Cambodian community waited with a handful of reporters and a rag-tag bunch of social justice advocates there to support Panna Krom, the 26-year-old woman convicted of killing her newborn when she was a teenager.
In a tense, hour-long clemency hearing, the three-member Board of Pardons and Paroles heard from the Danbury State’s Attorney who repeatedly portrayed Ms. Krom as a murderer who did not deserve even the privilege of naming the baby girl she drowned in a toilet. They heard from Krom’s defense team, who focused on how Krom had changed, how she had taken responsibility for her action, and how she would use her freedom to make sure other young women do not act as she had.
And they heard from Krom, who spoke eloquently of her culpability, the shame she had brought on her family, and her desire to make something lasting and good arise from her ignominy. Central to that promise is her desire to spread the word about Connecticut’s Safe Havens law, which allows distressed parents the option of dropping off a newborn at any Connecticut emergency room. Since its passage in 2000, the state’s Safe Havens legislation has helped save at least two dozen infants from abandonment and death. Had she known about the Safe Havens law, Panna Krom would have made a very different decision, and her life would have taken a radically different turn.
Over the past several years, I have had the honor of serving on the non-partisan Safe Havens Working Group. Throughout that time, Panna Krom has been a voice of reason, hope and editorial perspective, albeit from behind prison walls. With a few members of the working group as interlocutors, she read and commented on the educational materials – posters, brochures and the like – which our committee created in order to raise awareness about Safe Havens. Panna Krom’s voice was like a bell – clear, mournful and impossible to ignore.
We are talking a lot these days, as a nation, about privilege – who has it and who doesn’t; how it is used and abused; how it can influence a justice system that is supposed to be blind to it. At the hearing, I sat next to Panna Krom’s parents, and I watched their trembling hands try to steady one another. Behind me sat Doug Hood, a Yale neurologist, who has spearheaded the clemency efforts, State Rep. Gayle Mulligan and former State Rep. Pam Sawyer, who co-chair the Safe Havens group, and author Wally Lamb, who has used his extraordinary teaching and writing gifts to help incarcerated women tell their own stories.
In that room of supporters, worlds of privilege, color and position collided. For me, the unspoken context of Panna Krom’s crime – her status as a young woman of color born to immigrants steeped in a culture foreign to most Americans – was brought into high relief when we remember the many white, male athletes being routinely exculpated for crimes because, as a society, we are more concerned about their futures than we are about what lies ahead for their victims.
Yes, Panna Krom did a dreadful thing. But she knows it, she owns it, and she’s working mightily to prevent others from doing the same. And unlike what people of privilege often do, she never blamed another person for her actions. Not once during the hearing was the name of the boy (or perhaps man) who impregnated her mentioned. In fact, his existence – that another person created this baby with her – was never mentioned. Because as is usually the case, the woman bears the brunt of the pain, the guilt and the responsibility to make things right.
But Panna Krom is up to the challenge. We have not heard the last of this articulate, penitent woman who will, without a doubt, help save other women from destroying their babies and their futures. Sitting in that room where the predominant language was not English, and the three-person parole board happened to be women, I felt the full weight and power of our justice system, which allowed reason and mercy to rule the day.
Christine Palm is communications director of the General Assembly’s non-partisan Commission on Women, Children and Seniors.
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