NEW YORK — After New York City police officers Joseph A. Piagentini and Waverly M. Jones were fatally shot outside a housing project in Harlem in 1971, the Black Liberation Army, an offshoot of the Black Panther Party, took credit for the killings.
Within months, arrests were made. The suspects claimed at their trial that the violence was part of their war against the United States. A jury convicted three men — Herman Bell, Anthony Bottom and Albert Washington — and each received a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
Now, nearly five decades later, and after seven unsuccessful attempts, Bell has been granted parole.
Currently an inmate at the Shawangunk Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in the Hudson Valley town of Wallkill, Bell could be freed as early as April 17, according to the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s website.
The decision, by a three-member panel of the State Parole Board, immediately opened old wounds about a crime many view as unforgivable, even amid a debate over incarceration policies that keep people behind bars into very old age. Bell is now 70.
Indeed, among the survivors of the two officers, opinion has been split: Piagentini’s widow, Diane, has repeatedly argued against parole for Bell, once gaining former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as an ally in that cause, while Jones’ children have said in the past that Bell should be released.
On Wednesday, as the news trickled out, Patrick J. Lynch, the head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said in a statement that the state’s parole board had failed.
“His release on parole is a painful affront to the families of every police officer who has sacrificed his or her life in the line of duty,” Lynch said.
Affixed to Lynch’s statement was one from Piagentini in which she too assailed the parole board, which she said had “betrayed the trust” of police families.
“The message being sent devalues the life of my brave husband who was taken from his two daughters and for whom there is no parole,” she said.
It was a May night when Jones and Piagentini, of the 32nd Precinct, were ambushed and shot in the back multiple times as they returned to their car after answering a call near Macombs Dam Bridge. Those killings were followed by the murders in, January 1972, of another pair of on-duty officers, Gregory Foster and Rocco Laurie, who were gunned down from behind as they patrolled the Lower East Side.
The city was on edge, rife with racial tension and awash in conspiracies. Many patrol officers saw themselves as targets in a plot by black residents to kill them. Some New Yorkers who embraced the Black Panther Party’s identity as a political and self-defense group saw the police as an instrument of governmental oppression.
For a long time, Bell asserted his innocence and, with his co-defendants, sought a new trial on the basis of uncovered evidence showing the first trial was unfair. Washington died in prison in April 2000. Bottom, also known as Jalil Abdul Muntaqim, is still in prison at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York, officials said.
In a statement condemning the decision, Commissioner James P. O’Neill recalled how Bell and his co-conspirators “shot Officer Piagentini 22 times, including with his own service revolver — as the dying officer pleaded for his own life.”
“Over the past 47 years, he has never expressed genuine remorse,” O’Neill said.
In a letter the parole board sent to Bell this week, however, they credited him with finally taking responsibility “for your actions” and expressing “regret and remorse for your crimes.” Noting this maturation, the board quoted back to Bell what he told panelists during their interview of him on March 3: “There was nothing political about the act, as much as I thought at the time,” Bell told them. “It was murder and horribly wrong.”
The board undertook a deep review of several factors, including Bell’s age, scant disciplinary history in prison and his success in compiling a “sturdy network of supporters,” including the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. In the end, a majority of panelists found that the state had prepared Bell well for release. Though his crime “represents one of the most supreme assaults against society,” Bell is capable of living a “law-abiding life,” it wrote.
“On some basic level this is what parole is for,” said Michael Jacobsen, the executive director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance and a former commissioner of the city’s Department of Correction.
The board also cited a letter it called “noteworthy” from a person it did not name — presumably Jones’ son — who expressed continued forgiveness for Bell “killing his father.”
“The simple answer is it would bring joy and peace as we have already forgiven Herman Bell publicly,” the letter, cited by the board, said. “On the other hand, to deny him parole again would cause us pain as we are reminded of the painful episode each time he appears before the board.”