On rare occasions, there are extraordinary circumstances that can justify parole after a lengthy stretch in prison for someone involved in the killing of a police officer. Such circumstances did not exist, however, in the case of Herman Bell, who was granted parole March 14 after nearly 50 years behind bars for being one of the shooters in the 1971 murders of Police Officers Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini.
The ambush killing of the two cops after they were lured to a phony distress call at a housing development in Harlem was a nasty piece of business executed by three members of the Black Liberation Army, a group whose idea of social revolution was to rob banks and murder cops. It seemed to take particular pleasure in targeting cops in cases where one officer was white, the other black, as was the case here.
While Officer Jones died swiftly of gunshot wounds, Officer Piagentini lived long enough to plead for his life, and was answered with a total of 22 bullets as he lay helplessly on the ground. It takes a heartlessness that stems from seeing your victim as not human, or having surrendered your own humanity, to coldly blast away for that long.
Mr. Bell and his partners in crime, Anthony Bottom and Albert Washington, were eventually arrested and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, during an era when a sentence of life without parole had yet to be created in New York State. Mr. Washington died in prison; Mr. Bottom is up for parole later this year.
The Parole Commissioners were apparently influenced in their decision to grant parole to Mr. Bell, after it was previously denied seven times, by a letter from a son of Officer Jones essentially stating that it would be a relief to release him so that his family would no longer have to relive the agony of further reminders of how it lost the cop.
But Officer Piagentini’s widow, Diane, and the two daughters he left behind were crestfallen by the decision, with the mother saying, “We’ve been betrayed” during a press conference at the offices of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association the morning after word of the parole seeped out.
PBA President Pat Lynch called for the state to overturn the decision, saying that the one thing that made his members able to reconcile themselves to the lack of a state death penalty was the belief that those who took the lives of cops would pay by spending the rest of their lives behind bars.
Police Commissioner James O’Neill made a similar point, saying “there has to be something more permanent than eventually getting released if you murder a police officer.”
The Parole Commissioners argued that Mr. Bell’s finally taking responsibility for his actions by acknowledging there was no political component to his actions 47 years ago—”It was murder and horribly wrong”—made him, at last, a fit candidate for parole.
That isn’t enough. Mr. Bell wasn’t a tangential player in the assassinations, someone with a lesser role in them such as driving a getaway car. He pulled the trigger, time and again, along with the other two killers in an assault upon the public safety that cops symbolize that was beyond redemption by any transformation of character that could follow.
It was a terrible decision to grant him parole. It should not be repeated when Mr. Bottom comes before the board seeking a release he doesn’t deserve.