by Christopher Zoukis
Herman Bell served 46 years behind bars in New York. The 70-year-old was convicted of the 1971 murders of two NYPD officers, and received a sentence of 25 years to life. Denied parole on seven previous occasions, Bell, who long argued he was a political prisoner, was granted parole and released from the Shawangunk Correctional Facility in April 2018.
The reaction to the Parole Board’s decision was swift and severe. New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch said “[i]t should be clear to any reasonable person that no one believes that cold-blooded cop-killers like Herman Bell should ever be released from prison.”
He was wrong, though. Some people do believe that even murderers like Bell should have the possibility of redemption and release. They include the state lawmakers who created the indeterminate sentencing scheme in New York, the judge who sentenced Bell and the two of three Parole Board members who voted to grant his release.
“If rehabilitation is a goal of incarceration, we should applaud the parole board’s decision to release a person whose institutional record warrants it,” stated Lisa Packard, managing attorney for the Office of the Appellate Defender.
Newer parole guidelines in New York likely contributed to the decision to free Bell. Those guidelines place greater emphasis on the risk that a parolee will commit a new crime, rather than their original offense. Bell, who earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees while incarcerated, was deemed unlikely to reoffend.
“Said consideration has led the majority of this panel to concur that your release is not incompatible with the welfare of society and further believes you can live a law-abiding life,” the Parole Board wrote.
During his final parole hearing, Bell renounced the political nature of his crime. “There was nothing political about the act, as much I thought at the time,” he said. “It was murder and horribly wrong.... It was horrible, something that I did, and feel great remorse for having done it.” He added, “The consequences of what I had done came to the surface and I learned from being in prison what it’s like to be separated from loved ones.”
Lynch was not convinced. “The current parole process contains gigantic loopholes that allow murderous monsters like Herman Bell to game the system by concocting a phony story tailor-made for the new parole guidelines,” he said in a statement. “To make matters worse, the courts seem to believe that politically-appointed parole board members have unbridled discretion to release criminals onto our streets and are completely immune from challenge by anyone, even when they disregard the law or the board’s own procedures. That must change.”
The Parole Board does in fact have almost total discretion in matters of parole. That “unbridled discretion,” combined with the Board’s usual emphasis on the nature of the crime, has historically resulted in the exact opposite of Lynch’s concerns: parole-eligible prisoners are never given the opportunity to prove they are rehabilitated and not given the second chance contemplated by indeterminate sentencing schemes.
Former Parole Board Chairman Bob Dennison said that in some cases, like Bell’s, legislative and judicial intent should be ignored and a prisoner never granted parole, regardless of his sentence or proof of rehabilitation.
“I’m shocked. A cop-killer like this should never be released. This was a cold-blooded killing of a uniformed officer,” he stated. “Why not let [Son of Sam killer] David Berkowitz out? Why not let [John Lennon’s killer] Mark David Chapman out?”
Bell, who will reportedly live in Brooklyn, is subject to lifetime supervision. He and fellow Black Liberation Army (BLA) members Albert Washington and Anthony Bottom had ambushed and killed NYPD officers Waverly Jones, 33, and Joseph A. Piagentini, 28.
Bottom reportedly shot Jones, while Bell and Bottom both shot Piagentini. Bell also pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter for the 1971 shotgun slaying of San Francisco police Sgt. John Young. The BLA was a militant offshoot of the Black Panthers that engaged in various anti-government crimes, including bombings, prison breaks, robberies and attacks on the police in the 1970s. The organization was active until 1981.
Bottom, now known as Jalil Abdul Muntaqim, remains in prison, serving 25 years to life, while Washington died while incarcerated.
Officer Piagentini’s widow, Diane Piagentini, criticized both the Parole Board’s decision to release Bell as well as Governor Andrew Cuomo. The governor noted that while he disagreed with the Board’s decision, it was an independent agency. The son of officer Jones, Waverly Jones, Jr., reportedly wrote in favor of releasing Bell, saying he had forgiven him. “In these times of increased hate, we need more compassion and forgiveness,” Jones said in a letter to the Parole Board.
Another BLA member, Robert Hayes, 69, was granted parole in New York in June 2018 after serving 44 years for the 1973 shooting death of transit officer Sidney Thompson. In an interview with the New York Post, Hayes said he has diabetes and congestive heart failure, and thus did not expect to live long following his release.
As with Bell, Hayes’ parole was opposed by law enforcement officials and organizations, and by the family of officer Thompson.
“I just hope that every day for the rest of his life – which I hope is short – that he thinks of my son and daughter, who grew up without a father, and of the grandchildren my husband never saw,” Thompson’s widow said.
Sources: www.nypost.com, www.cnn.com, www1.nyc.gov
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login