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Updated: October 22, 2018, 2:00 AM

Editorial: Value Slain Officers' Lives

By Richard Steier

Diane Piagentini, the widow of Police Officer Joseph Piagentini, recently made a statement as much in sadness as frustration which state officials can’t logically rebut: “It is mind-boggling that the parole board could find that the release of musician John Lennon’s murderer was incompatible with the welfare of society but the release of cop-killers isn’t.”

She was standing outside the Manhattan offices of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision prior to giving a victim-impact statement to a parole board considering whether to release Anthony Bottom, one of three men who murdered Mr. Piagentini and his partner, Waverly Jones, on May 21, 1971 after using a phony call for assistance to set up an ambush. Another of the shooters, Herman Bell, was released from prison six months ago; the third killer, Albert Washington, died in prison.

In noting the disparate treatment of Mr. Bell and Mark David Chapman, who murdered Mr. Lennon outside his Central Park West apartment in December 1980 and was denied parole for the 10th time in August, Ms. Piagentini was inviting a comparison that implied that parole-board members believed Mr. Lennon’s impact on society was greater than that of two police officers and therefore greater harm would be done in releasing his killer for an unjustifiable murder than in turning loose a cop-killer.

If that is the thinking, it is based on a false premise. And if anything, a case can be made that greater harm is done, notwithstanding the late Beatle’s impact on both music and the larger culture, both here and internationally, in releasing a murderer of those who serve and protect us.

In very different ways, Mr. Chapman and Mr. Bell and Mr. Bottom suffered from forms of mental illness. Mr. Chapman was motivated to shoot Mr. Lennon by the notoriety he believed it would give him; the two members of the Black Liberation Army, as well as Mr. Washington, convinced themselves that the way to make a better life for black people in America was to murder police officers.

In Mr. Bell’s case, the killing did not end with the deaths of the two NYPD officers: three months later, he was involved in the murder of a San Francisco Police Sergeant, John Young.

But it was the assassination of Officers Piagentini and Jones that riveted public attention, largely because of the depraved heartlessness of the crime. Mr. Jones died instantly, but Mr. Piagentini lay wounded, pleading for his life by telling his assailants that he had a wife and two daughters. They were unmoved; they methodically kept pumping bullets into his body, 22 in all.

There were no mitigating circumstances to speak in the killers’ favor. None of them had a peripheral role in the heinous crime against the two officers who died on a Harlem street. They had deluded themselves into believing they were soldiers in an army, notwithstanding the fact that the other primary activity of BLA members was committing armed robberies.

Ms. Piagentini accused Mr. Bell and Mr. Bottom of “faking remorse” in recent years after doing nothing for nearly four decades to show contrition or try to redeem their lives for the three they had taken here and in San Francisco.

Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch repeated the ritual trip to the parole board to make the case against release of cop-killers Oct. 19 when a delegation of union officials joined recently retired NYPD Deputy Commissioner Lawrence Byrne in arguing against freeing the four men who murdered Mr. Byrne’s brother, Police Officer Edward Byrne, 30 years ago on the orders of drug-dealer Howard “Pappy” Mason. When he stood with Ms. Piagentini a week earlier, he made a statement that applied to both cases: “I challenge anyone to cite a more-horrendous crime than the planned, cold-blooded, sadistic assassinations of Police Officers Piagentini and Jones, the details of which are shocking.”

The slain officers didn’t thrill and inspire millions of people the way Mr. Lennon did as the member of a ground-breaking music group and later as a solo artist. But they were part of a force that provides an equally intangible benefit to society by putting themselves at risk to keep others safe.

One of the criteria that persuaded two parole-board members to vote in favor of releasing Mr. Bell—they no longer believed he posed a threat to society—should not have entered into the equation. In fact, a stronger argument could be made on that ground for releasing Mr. Chapman, who at the time that he committed murder was fixated on killing just one famous person—perversely, the one he particularly admired—rather than anyone who wore a particular uniform.

Because life without parole was not an option when Mr. Bell and Mr. Bottom were sentenced, they each got 25 years to life. The discretion this gives to parole boards was misapplied in Mr. Bell’s case. Those board members deciding Mr. Bottom’s fate should use that discretion to hold the loss of the slain officers’ lives on at least as high a plane as Mr. Lennon’s.