Joyce Mitchell pleads guilty to helping N.Y. inmates escape
NEW YORK — With a barely audible whisper of “guilty,” the prison tailor charged with helping two murderers stage a dramatic escape from an upstate New York prison last month pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges that could bring her up to seven years behind bars.
Joyce Mitchell, 51, was charged with promoting prison contraband, a felony, and criminal facilitation, a misdemeanor.
Mitchell faces a prison sentence ranging from 2⅓ years to seven years.
Mitchell wore a black-and-white jumpsuit to court, where her husband Lyle — who had allegedly been the target of a murder plot as part of escape — attended the hearing. Her handcuffs were removed so she could sign a form to waive a grand jury hearing on her charges.
At various points during the hearing, Mitchell dabbed tears from behind her eyeglasses.
Asked why Mitchell was not charged with conspiracy to murder her husband, Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie told reporters Tuesday that he couldn’t use her word alone to convict her on such a charge.
The inmate who was recaptured, David Sweat, did not corroborate such a conspiracy, Wylie said. “Because of the facts that we had before us, to prove such a charge beyond a reasonable doubt would have been extremely difficult,” the prosecutor said.
Sentencing will take place in September.
Authorities said Mitchell, a tailor at the Clinton Correctional Facility, provided inmates Richard Matt and Sweat with tools they used to cut through cell walls for their escape from the prison in Dannemora, New York.
Mitchell admitted that with the help of another prison employee she smuggled hacksaw blades by hiding them in frozen hamburger meat, a law enforcement official told CNN last month.
The escape was discovered on June 6. A massive manhunt ended in late June after law enforcement officers fatally shot Matt and recaptured Sweat.
She faced up to eight years behind bars if tried and convicted, authorities said.
Officials said Matt and Sweat had originally planned to come out of a manhole and meet Mitchell, who would drive them away. But Mitchell didn’t show up, officials said.
Despite their botched getaway plan, Sweat and Matt managed to elude authorities for about three weeks. They fled through the woods of upstate New York, breaking into a cabin and collecting supplies.
Thought Mitchell was said to have had a relationship with the inmates, Sweat did not confirm that he had sex with her, according to Wylie.
“He did not confirm that whatsoever,” Wylie said.
Mitchell potentially faced additional charges — including allegations of sexual conduct with one of the inmates, and allegations that there was a conspiracy to have her husband killed — but Tuesday’s plea deal precludes that, Wylie said.
“I made a determination it was in the interest of justice” to proceed with the plea on the two counts, Wylie said.
Mitchell, however, could still be charged with other counts if an inspector general’s investigation turns up any new crimes, the prosecutor said.
New York State Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott said in a statement that Mitchell’s guilty plea made “clear her culpability in the systemic breakdown that led to the escape of two cold-blooded killers.”
The plea deal includes Mitchell’s continued cooperation in the broader investigation of the prison
“Nothing short of her full cooperation will be tolerated, and I am confident that when she fulfills this obligation, I will provide a thorough and complete accounting of all the factors contributing to this elaborate breakout, with an eye toward ensuring this never happens again,” the statement said.
Plea negotiations with the lawyer for another prison employee, Gene Palmer, have failed and his case will be presented to a grand jury, Wylie said. Palmer is accused of taking meat that concealed the hacksaw blades to Sweat and Matt who subsequently escaped.