he Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association last week announced new grounds for overturning a decision to parole a member of the Black Liberation Army who participated in the ambush-assassination of two police officers in 1971.
A document filed by the PBA contends that ”significant information existed which was not considered by the New York State Board of Parole.” The union wants the parole decision suspended until a new hearing can be held to consider the information.
Shot 22 Times
The two officers, Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones, were lured to a Harlem housing project by a 911 call reporting a disturbance that didn’t exist. When they left the building, BLA members Herman Bell, Anthony Bottoms and Albert Washington began shooting.
Officer Jones, 33, was killed immediately. Officer Piagentini, 28, was shot 22 times as he begged for his life, telling his murderers that he had two young daughters.
The three killers were convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life, the most-severe punishment available at the time. The State Legislature later added a life-without-parole sentencing option, but the 25-year-to-life term means that cop-killers come up for parole every two years after serving their minimum sentence.
After seven rejections, Mr. Bell, 70, was granted parole in March. Mr. Bottom, 66, is up for parole again in June. Mr. Washington died in prison.
The PBA, which believes cop-killers should never be released, denounced the decision to parole Mr. Bell.
Union president Patrick J. Lynch, at a press conference March 15, said police officers were “sickened” by the decision. He called for it to be reversed and for the two Parole Commissioners on the three-member panel who voted for release, Otis Cruse and Carol Shapiro, to be fired.
Thomas Mailey, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, threw cold water on Mr. Lynch’s request, saying, “Under New York State law, the parole board is an independent body regarding all decisions and only the courts can overturn a decision once it has been handed down. Further, in order for board members to be removed, ‘just cause’ must be demonstrated and a hearing process must be completed. Disagreement with the decision does not meet the standard of just cause.”
Mr. Lynch said the PBA would explore every avenue for overturning the decision. On March 21, the union released its case.
The PBA said its appeals document “cites the parole decision, which noted that the sentencing minutes in the original murder trial were not available in the file that [the Parole Commissioners] reviewed. Failure to consider them in this parole hearing is, according to the document, ‘contrary to law.'”
The union continued, “Additionally, the request notes that Police Officer Jones’s brother, Manny, who became aware of the decision to release Bell through news reports, and who is now registered with the board as a victim, has the right to present a statement to the board on the impact that the murder has had on his life.
“The request also notes the lack of remorse shown by Bell through his prior seven hearings, all of which denied him parole, and states that it appears that ‘Bell’s statements were tailored to fit the board’s rehabilitation guidelines.’”
Mr. Lynch said in a statement, “It seems very strange to New York City police officers that this board has failed to review critical sentencing minutes that had been available to all seven prior panels that refused to release this cold-blooded killer. Equally strange is that the three most-junior and inexperienced panelists were chosen to sit in judgment on what is certainly one of the most serious crimes a parole board ever had to hear. It certainly gives the appearance that the deck was stacked in favor of the release of this heartless, cold-blooded murderer.”
‘When Joe Comes Back’
Officer Piagentini’s widow, Diane, 74, who spoke at the PBA press conference, said, “My family and I are devastated at the board’s decision to release Herman Bell, my husband’s murderer. I join Waverly Jones’s brother and sister in the belief that Bell can get out when my Joseph comes back. Why isn’t this board recognizing that even today, there are crimes that deserve the sentence of life without parole and murdering a police officer is one of them?”
In its decision, the board quoted a letter from Officer Jones’s son supporting parole, saying the family had forgiven Mr. Bell and did not want to have the wound reopened with every new parole hearing.
Mr. Bell’s lawyer, Robert Boyle, told the Daily News that the PBA doesn't have standing to request a new hearing. “The issue is between the parole board and the offender,” he said. “The PBA thinks that anyone convicted of killing a cop should get life without parole. They’re entitled to their opinion, but that's not the law.”