Wearing a green prison jumpsuit with long white sleeves underneath, Robin Farris kept her focus on the parole officers on the computer screen as she answered their questions, sometimes crying as she spoke.
She said she doesn’t expect Beatrice King’s family to forgive her for killing the Aurora woman whom she was dating in 1990.
“I wish to God I could take it back… I am so sorry. I am so sorry. I apologize to Beatrice’s sisters. They have every right to hate me. … I am so sorry,” Farris said at her hearing Wednesday at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility.
It’s an unlikely scene for Farris. About 32 years into her sentence, Farris wasn’t supposed to be eligible for parole for another eight years, and she already had been denied a 2014 request for clemency by then-Gov. John Hickenlooper. But after attorneys Kristen Nelson and Risa Wolf-Smith took on her case for free, Gov. Jared Polis granted her request.
That placed her fate in the hands of a parole board, with a decision expected in the coming months.
Farris didn’t receive a pardon, which can remove a conviction from a person’s record. Instead, Polis gave her a sentence commutation, making her eligible for release from prison starting at the end of this month, nearly eight years earlier than she would have been. She was among 24 individuals granted clemency on Dec. 22.
The case is historic — Farris is the first Black woman to be granted a sentence commutation by a Colorado governor in more than three decades, according to research provided by her attorneys. She’s also the third-longest serving woman in Colorado prison, and the first woman Polis has granted a sentence commutation to during his term.
“Prison is an inherently traumatic environment. It is not a place that is conducive to healing,” Nelson said. “And when people do heal and grow, it’s in spite of prison and not because of it. And that, to me, is such a huge testament to Robin’s character and the strength and determination that she had to have to fight for 30 years to feel like her life had purpose and meaning to figure herself out.”
When Nelson, the executive director of the Spero Justice Center, a nonprofit that fights excessive sentencing, was working on a Law Review article and looking for inmates to contribute, Farris wasn’t one of the ones who responded. But Farris later sent Nelson a letter that impressed the former Colorado public defender so much, she decided to go meet her.
Nelson also knew that Wolf-Smith, a partner at Holland & Hart who had spent years specializing in bankruptcy and restructuring, was looking to take on a pro-bono clemency case, so together they decided to work on supplementing the clemency petition Farris had submitted herself in 2020.
After meeting Farris, Wolf-Smith said she found her to be introspective and insightful and a woman who achieved so much while in prison both vocationally and mentally. She’s often held up as an example in the women’s prison.
“This is the kind of person that we want to shine a light on to say she deserves (clemency). She’s been rehabilitated,” Wolf-Smith said.
The clemency petition makes the case that not only has Farris changed — she earned a scholarship and then a degree from the University of Colorado Boulder and has become a mentor and counselor for women in the prison — but so too have sentencing laws since she was sentenced in 1991. She’s remorseful and accepts responsibility for her actions, her attorneys said. She already has a place to live lined up for after her release, and a job.
“(Clemency) does not wipe away the mistakes, it does not wipe away the guilt and the accountability for what put the person in there. … I will never be in a state of rest because I understand what led me into prison, the gravity of it and the responsibility that I will always carry because of it,” Farris, 61, told The Denver Post in a phone interview.
“I owe a debt to society and part of what that looks like is for me to proceed with being the best person that I can be in society, understanding that my consequences were not unjustified, but that I have now a means to look forward.”
Changes in the law
Farris, then 28, shot King, 33, during an argument the two were having at King’s apartment in Aurora in February 1990.
What led to the fight is disputed by Farris and King’s family. Farris was charged with first-degree felony murder because prosecutors at the time also charged her with burglary, saying that Farris remained in King’s home after she was no longer welcome and had planned to assault her.
Farris said she now understands that her behavior was irrational and dysfunctional at the time. She was traumatized from a violent sexual assault she suffered in the 1980s, which she wasn’t able to disclose until five years ago, and said she carried a gun for protection. But, she stressed, that is not an excuse for what she did.
Nelson and Wolf-Smith argue that the first-degree murder charge was excessive because Farris had been in the apartment many times before, that she had not been planning to kill King, and that Farris was disproportionately charged compared with convictions in other Colorado crimes between lovers. Farris also had a 6-year-old daughter at the time. She had no other criminal convictions on her record.
In 2021, the Colorado legislature changed the law and sentencing for felony murder. Farris could have been charged with second-degree murder under the new law, rather than first-degree, and a judge would have had more discretion with sentencing. The new law also allows for credit in prison to count toward time served, so even if Farris received the harshest sentence possible, she would have been eligible for parole earlier.
“They’ve forgotten about the victim”
King’s family members, however, argue that Farris should stay locked up for taking the life of their loved one.
Sylvia Cox, King’s younger sister who lives in Michigan, has made sure to keep tabs on what happens with Farris, including virtually attending her latest parole hearing. Farris is barred from reaching out to the family members directly unless they contact her, though she has been labeled a good candidate for restorative justice efforts.
Cox has been frustrated by the attention Farris’ case is receiving, calling it political, and saying she thinks it will be the reason Farris is let out early.
“Robin committed a heinous crime… and it seems like people are forgetting about what first-degree means,” Cox said.
“They’ve forgotten about the victim. And I would say that to the governor, too, that you’ve forgotten about the victim. You’ve forgotten about the crime. You’ve forgotten about the severity of the crime,” she added.
Cox recalls when King introduced the family members to Farris over the phone. She said they didn’t think anything of it or even know if it was a serious relationship. That was the only time she talked to Farris.
King, who was born and raised in Michigan, spent some time DJing after high school, attended college for a brief stint in Atlanta, Georgia, then joined the Army and spent a significant time in Germany, before returning and then moving to Colorado.
She enjoyed the outdoors, sports and gardening. She was active in the LGBTQ community and had a supportive family when she came out as a lesbian.
King also loved her sisters and was always there for them, Cox said.
And no matter how much time Farris has spent in prison or how much she’s achieved, that’s not enough of a reason to Cox to justify her early release.
“She’s nowhere near the same person”
In the more than 30 years she’s been incarcerated, both of Farris’s parents, her brother and other family members died, many from various forms of cancer.
In one letter from her father in support of a previous clemency request, he wrote, “I do not want to die with my daughter still in prison. This plea for mercy is to see that my daughter is here for the remainder of my life. I believe that Robin is reformed and has a long life to live and has much to contribute to society. I’m asking for your empathy and compassion as a father and a Christian.”
Her uncle, Rev. Dean Farris, who lives in Pueblo where Robin Farris was born, has continued the advocacy work to get his niece out of prison. He recalls all the summers she spent with him and his wife as a child, and he still talks to her at least twice a week.
“…It was hard for us to put in perspective what had happened and why she was in trouble,” Farris said.
But he watched his niece grow in prison.
“I think that she accepted Christ and her life changed drastically,” he said. “She’s nowhere near the same person who went into the institution.”
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