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Longest-serving female inmate wins parole

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After 49 years behind bars, Smithey is a free woman. (AP)

The nation's longest-serving female inmate has been freed, nearly half a century after killing an Arizona toddler she was baby-sitting.

Betty Smithey, now 69, reportedly entered prison a fresh-faced, but troubled, 20-year-old with psychotic tendencies. Following Monday's parole board hearing, held nearly 50 years after her trial, she walked out of Perryville State Prison with a wrinkled face, gray hair and a cane.

"It's wonderful driving down the road and not seeing any barbed wire."

- Betty Smithey

"It's wonderful driving down the road and not seeing any barbed wire," Smithey told The Arizona Republic after her remarkable release. "I am lucky, so very lucky."

After Monday's 4-to-1 vote by the state Board of Executive Clemency, Smithey reportedly crossed herself and tilted her head toward the floor, as if in prayer.

She then smiled to supporters, mouthing "thank you," before her niece, Rebecca Henderson, enveloped her in a congratulatory -- and tearful -- hug, The Republic reported.

"Like I told the board, I know it's going to be a big adjustment, but I'll take it and I'll make good," Smithey reportedly said.

Smithey, who was a live-in baby-sitter for the family she would ultimately betray with the murder, began her long run behind bars in 1963, after a conviction for the New Year's Day killing of little Sandy Gerberick.

At the time of Gerberick's murder, Smithey had endured a tough-luck childhood that, according to a psychiatrist, left her with poor coping skills that could easily metastasize into psychotic actions when faced with stress, The Republic reported. She threatened to commit suicide after her trial, and later made four escape attempts between 1974 and 1981.

But Smithey found her personal road to redemption in the form of a letter, mailed to her in 1983, from Emma Simmons, Sandy Gerberick's mother, in which Simmons forgave her for the ghastly crime.

"She made me feel that I wasn't a monster," Smithey told the paper. "I felt if she could forgive me for taking her child's life, I could forgive myself. ... It was my responsibility to try to become a better person than I was."

"I've changed over those 41 years, and I can assure the board that she has as well," Andy Silverman, a University of Arizona law professor who has known Smithey since working on an appeal for her in 1971, reportedly said at Monday's hearing. "She's a good and caring person.

"She always shows more interest in others than in herself."

Long ago hit by a trial judge with a life sentence with no possibility of parole, Smithey required a clemency order from Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who commuted her sentence in the spring to 48-years-to-life. Following the vote of confidence by Brewer, Smithey petitioned the board for her ultimate release.

Previously, Smithey had asked for clemency from past Arizona governors like Janet Napolitano, only have the politicians deny the request.

In Smithey's case, board members granted an absolute discharge, not only freeing her from prison but also any community supervision.

"I really see no value in keeping you in prison any longer. I really see no value in keeping strings on you any longer," Parole Board Chairman and Director Jesse Hernandez reportedly told Smithey before voting to grant her discharge.

Smithey will reside with her niece in Mesa, where the paper reported family members painted and decorated a room for her to live in.

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