PHOENIX -- A lot has changed since Bettey Smithey went to prison for murder 49 years ago. There were no Starbucks, no microwaves and no cell phones. But its the changes within Smithey herself that led the State Executive Clemency board to grant her freedom on Monday.
"It's just wonderful to breath air, to walk out the door when I feel like it, without seeing barbed wire," Smithey said Tuesday from her niece's home in Mesa where she is now living.
Smithey was 20 years old when she was convicted for the murder of a 15 month old girl she was babysitting. She had been hired by the baby's family just a week earlier to be a live-in sitter. According to legal documents, on the night of January 1, 1963, the baby would not stop crying and Smithey strangled her with a stocking and then fled.
"I deserved to go to prison for what I did," Smithey said.
Attorneys, psychologists and the parole board all agreed Smithey had served her time and changed her ways.
So did the baby's mother, Emma Gerberick Simmons, who in 1983 sent Smithey a letter in prison saying: "I have thought of you often in these years. Not with hate, as you may think, but with sadenss, for I forgave you many years ago."
Smithey said that letter was instrumental in her turnaround. Prior to then she had a number of prison disciplinary records that included multiple escapes.
Earlier this year Governor Jan Brewer, in an extremely rare move, commuted Smithey's life without parole sentence to 48 years to parole, clearing the way for the clemency board to grant her release.
They did just that on Monday, voting 4-1 for her release.
"I'm not a monster, no matter what I did," Smithey said.
But not everyone agrees Smithey should have been set free and her family says they're prepared for some negative backlash. Still Smithey vows to prove to the world she is deserving of the mercy.
"I feel that I've payed as much as I can, and now, it's ready, Im serious I'm ready to give back to the community," she said. "I want to prove that I am worthy."