“On Friday, April 27, Herman Bell, a 70-year-old respected elder, was released after serving nearly 45 years in prison, Dequi kioni-Sadiki, chair of the Malcolm X Commemoration Committee, told the Amsterdam News. “Herman was one of thousands of incarcerated older people who was repeatedly denied parole for over a decade after completing his minimum sentence.”
Activists who have long rallied for “political prisoners” such as Mumia abu Jamal and Mutulu Shakur are quietly celebrating the fact that Herman Bell is a free man. Released from prison after 45-plus years behind the wall, this former Black Panther and Black Liberation Army member was taken from Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Ulster County, April 27, 2018. The Parole Board determined that after his eighth appearance that “his debt has been paid to society.”
Bell, along with and two other Black Liberation Army members, Albert “Nuh” Washington and Jalil Muntaqim, aka Anthony Bottom, were convicted of killing officers Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini after luring them to a Harlem housing development with a bogus 911 call. Authorities say both officers were shot multiple times, with Piagentini hit by more than 20 bullets.
During Bell’s eighth parole hearing in early March, the State Parole Board approved Bell’s release. Board members took into consideration his stated remorse for killing the officers and the fact he had earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees while in prison and counseled other inmates.
The supporters of the 70-year-old activist argued that despite massive law enforcement opposition, including Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, it was time for the grandfather and prisoners’ mentor to come home, having served much of his 25-years-to-life sentence after his 1971 conviction.
Activist and MXCC co-founder Zayid Muhammad said, “Herman Bell has finally been released [today]!… 45 years in prison! On his eighth parole bid … Survived a brutal life threatening attack just months ago! Finally free! What’s the call? Free ‘em all!”
Friday, April 20, State Supreme Court Justice Richard Koweek tossed the lawsuit presented by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association the previous week seeking to block Bell’s parole, ruling that the State Parole Board followed protocol when it granted his release last month. The PBA had brought the suit on behalf of Diane Piagentini, widow of one of the slain officers.
Judge Koweek’s ruling stated that there’s “no legal standing to challenge the Parole Board’s decision.”
The ruling continued, “In order to overturn it a court must find it acted with irrationality bordering on impropriety. Nothing that is supplied in this case persuades this Court that the actions of the Parole Board meet that standard.”
He also mentioned a second Patrol Board meeting March 21, to review the sentencing minutes. “They adhered to their prior decision,” he noted, adding that he also reviewed widow Dianne Piagentini’s victim impact statement and Bell’s sentencing remarks.
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, “If I were on the Parole Board, I would not have made that decision …The Parole Board is an independent board but I would not have made that decision.”
March 14, the Parole Board determined Bell’s “debt has been paid to society” and granted his release on his eighth attempt, citing the 70-year-old’s advanced age, good disciplinary record, earning college degrees, counseling other inmates, the sincerity of his repentance and his low-risk of reoffending.
In Albany, Friday, April 13, Justice Koweek heard arguments from PBA attorneys representing Piagentini from the lawsuit attempting to halt Bell’s parole. PBA lawyers contend the Parole Board erred by not considering the sentencing judge’s and prosecutor’s suggestions Bell never be released, and that they also didn’t consider the victim impact statement she submitted.
However, the State Attorney General’s Bureau of Litigation argued that “the Parole Board did its job,” saying Piagentini doesn’t have the legal right to sue for a do-over parole hearing because relatives of victims can’t challenge a board ruling.
Attorney Michael Bachman agreed. “The standard for reversing the decision of the Parole Board is virtually unappealable and irreversible,” he said.
Activists argue, “It’s not what the police say, it’s what the law says.”
“The PBA, de Blasio and Cuomo should be investigated for obstructing justice and intimidation of a Parole Board that followed the law,” said Assemblyman Charles Barron. “It’s just a way to make Bell suffer some more and to intimidate people. It could set a precedence for future parole appearances.”
Along with the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, Barron had written recent articles of support for Bell’s release in the Amsterdam News.
Bell and two BLA comrades were convicted of the May 1971, Harlem murders of NYPD officers, Jones, 33, and Piagentini, 28, after allegedly luring them with a phony 911 call. Also, Bell later pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the death of a San Francisco cop.
The uproar caused by Bell’s parole approval conjures up the recurring question of whether incarceration is meant for rehabilitation or for vengeance.
“The Judge correctly applied the law,” said Bell’s attorney, Robert Boyle. “We look forward to welcoming Herman home.”
Bell was initially scheduled to be released April 17, but Koweek issued a temporary restraining order last week postponing his parole pending the lawsuit’s outcome. He set Bell’s new release for April 27, at 5 p.m. One of his co-defendants, Washington, died in prison, and Muntaqim, 66, has a June parole hearing.
Teacher, WBAI radio host and activist Dequi kioni-Sadiki told the Amsterdam News, “The New York State Parole Board is an independent body charged with reviewing and determining who of the more than 12,000 cases presented to them each year will be released on parole. For people up for parole and their families, preparation for this process is incredibly stressful, daunting and very often traumatizing and disappointing, especially when each denial means another two years before the next appearance. In the case of Herman Bell, it was his seventh Board appearance that brought light and hope to the end of the 46-year tunnel he, his wife, son, daughter-in-law and granddaughters have lived. While the Parole Board used its lawful and discretionary authority to release Mr. Bell on parole, it resulted in the PBA waging an unrelenting media and political campaign of falsehoods, demonized mischaracterizations and dubious misrepresentations about him, going so far as to issue a ‘safety alert’ to falsely indicate that this 70-year-old elder poses a ‘clear and present danger to police officers,’ making threats that ‘We’re gonna get you. We don’t care why you’re behind bars. We just care that you are behind bars,’ and spending thousands of dollars on primetime radio ads during baseball games to influence and encourage people to click a box on their website to ‘keep cop killers in jail’ Each click sends 62 letters to the New York State Parole Board. The PBA has used bullying and scare tactics in their attempts to frighten the public into believing Mr. Bell is ‘evil’ and intimidated the Board, the judge and elected officials into rescinding the parole decision. “None of the PBA’s claims against Mr. Bell are an accurate reflection of the truth. The truth is keeping Mr. Bell in prison [has served] as nothing more than cruel and unusual punishment. It will not contribute to justice or public safety. The truth is older people and people convicted of the most serious crimes have the lowest recidivism rate, pose virtually no risk to public safety, are the least likely to commit a crime. The truth is Waverly Jones Jr., the son of slain officer Waverly Jones, supports his release despite the harm caused his family, and in a letter he wrote to the Parole Board he said, ‘Keeping Mr. Bell in jail after all of these years would serve no purpose other than vengeance, something that we as a family do not need or want.’”
The activist listed some of the support Bell has garnered over the years, saying, “The New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, a group made up of 53 state legislators…More than 160 social justice and legal organizations… including the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, National Lawyers Guild and The Sentencing Project. Additionally, many prominent artists, Danny Glover and Yasiin Bey, have been strong supporters of his release, as have the over 1000 artists and cultural workers, Glenn Ligon, Judith Butler, Andrea Fraser, Julianna Huxtable, Russell Banks and Quinn Latimer just to name a few, who signed a letter of support for Mr. Bell’s release.”
Kioni-Sadiki concluded, “Herman’s release is a result of important and urgent changes in the criminal legal system and parole regulations that are part of nationwide efforts to end mass incarceration. Let us hope that Herman’s release brings inspiration for more change…but who of the thousands of New York families awaiting the return of their loved ones release on parole will it be tomorrow? “Herman is deeply humbled and grateful for the broad expressions of trust and support, but out of respect for the feelings of the victims’ families, he will not be making any public statements. We welcome him home.”