NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — A former member of a black radical group who was convicted in the 1971 killings of two police officers has been granted parole after 44 years behind bars for a crime that crystalized an era when militant groups declared war on authorities.
Herman Bell’s supporters, including relatives of one of the slain officers, said the 70-year-old was a model inmate who deserved freedom. But the other officer’s family, the New York police union and some lawmakers called Bell’s parole an affront to police who sacrificed their lives for public safety.
“We’ve been betrayed,” said Diane Piagentini, Officer Joe Piagentini’s widow. “Letting a cop killer out of prison is a betrayal to police officers who are putting their lives on the line now. It is a betrayal to the citizens of the United States to let killers out among us to kill again. I believe Herman Bell hasn’t changed. None of what he said or did back in the 70s has left him: He is an assassin.”
“The parole board has chosen to release one of the most dangerous criminals of our time, Herman Bell,” she added.
NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill tweeted his response to the news, saying the decision to release Bell is “indefensible.”
During an unrelated event on Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked about the decision to parole Bell.
“I’m very troubled by it. This was a premeditated killing of a police officer,” said de Blasio. “That should be life in prison, period. There’s nothing else to discuss. I don’t understand how there possibly was parole in that situation.”
The mayor added he would intervene against the parole decision if he could.
“It’s not just about the personal impact it has on the city and the officers,” said NYPD First Deputy Commissioner Ben Tucker. “It speaks volumes about our system and the way it’s supposed to work. And when you start to shoot police officers, who represent those who protect the rest of us – everyone – then you run into some serious concerns. So it’s just pretty clear that if you’re in then you should stay in and serve the time.”
Bell had been denied parole seven times before. But in a decision released Wednesday, a parole board said Bell’s “debt has been paid to society” after he admitted his crime, was productive in prison and amassed supporters including relatives of one of the slain officers.
“Your crime represents one of the most supreme assaults on society,” the panel wrote, but his release will “denote rehabilitation as core to our system of criminal justice.”
“To say that you should let this animal onto the streets is disgraceful,” said Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch. “Even in this progressive world we live now, the law says life without the possibility of parole. Was Officer Piagentini’s life less important than a police officer’s life now?”
Lynch called for the removal of the parole board members who voted in favor of release.
“These commissioners need to be canned,” Lynch said. “They need to be gone. They’ve lost the vision of what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Bell remains behind bars at an upstate prison until at least April 17. His lawyer, Robert J. Boyle, said he had satisfied all the criteria for parole and “in our view, justice was served.”
“The issue before the parole board was whether, given certain criteria, it is reasonably probably whether Mr. Bell would lead a crime-free life if released,” Boyle told CBS2’s Lisa Rozner. “In making the decision to release Mr. Bell to parole supervision, the board simply applied those criteria. They applied the law.
“Mr. Bell has expressed remorse for his role in the deaths of Officer Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini,” Boyle added. “While in prison, he has maintained an unblemished disciplinary record and become a mentor to younger prisoners, counseling them on leading a crime-free life.”
Officers Jones and Piagentini were shot multiple times after responding to a report of a domestic dispute at a Harlem public housing complex on May 21, 1971. Prosecutors said it was a trap set by Bell and co-defendant Anthony Bottom, who also was convicted and is serving 25 years to life but is due for a parole hearing in June.
Bell and Bottom were members of a violent offshoot of the Black Panther Party called the Black Liberation Army. The group sanctioned symbolic killings of police officers, regardless of their race, in New York and California and robbed banks to finance its activities, authorities have said.
For years, Bell, Bottom and a co-defendant who has since died in prison claimed they were innocent and had been framed by the FBI. Declassified documents show the federal agency had initiated a covert campaign to infiltrate and disrupt the Black Liberation Army and other violent radical movements.
In 2007, Bell and Bottom accepted plea deals and got probation sentences for their roles in the killing of San Francisco police Sgt. John Young inside a stationhouse in his city in 1971.
Then, in 2012 New York parole board interviews, both men admitted their roles in killing Piagentini and Jones.
In a parole board interview this month, Bell said “there was nothing political about the act, as much as I thought at the time.”
“It was murder and horribly wrong,” he said, according to the parole board decision. “It was horrible, something that I did and feel great remorse for having done it.”
That didn’t change Diane Piagentini’s opinion of his release, which she said “devalues the life of my brave husband.”
“How can we ask our police officers to risk their lives to protect society when society fails to appropriately punish their animalistic killers?” she said in a statement released by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, a city police union.
Lynch said members “are disgusted, offended and extremely angry with this parole board’s decision.”
Some state Republican lawmakers held a press conference in January exhorting New Yorkers to sign a petition opposing Bell’s release. Republican U.S. Rep. Pete King, whose father was a police lieutenant who attended the officers’ funerals in 1971, on Wednesday called Bell’s parole “a shameful insult” to their memory.
But Jones’ family backed Bell’s release. The slain officer’s son, Waverly Jones Jr., told the Daily News in 2014 that keeping Bell incarcerated “would only be for revenge.”
“We have forgiven him,” his daughter, Wanda Jones, told CBS2 by phone Thursday.
The parole board cited a letter from the family, saying it played a role in their decision.
But former chairman and commissioner of the parole board Robert Dennison told CBS2’s Lisa Rozner this would not have happened under his watch.
“I was very disappointed in the parole board,” he told Rozner. “From what I understand now, there are new guidelines, which say the most important factor is the propensity to recidivate.”
In prison, Bell has earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, counseled other prisoners and been a pen pal for homeless children. He has a number of offers for work, according to the parole board’s decision and his lawyer.
“I hope he can be free to continue doing the work that he’s doing. I think he can make a positive contribution,” said Brooklyn Rev. Herbert Daughtry, who had visited Bell in jail.
Through his lawyer, Bell said he would not comment “out of respect to the victims’ families.” He plans to return to his wife, children and grandchildren in California.
The decision comes about a year after a New York parole board denied release to former Weather Underground radical Judith Clark, who drove a getaway car in a bungled 1981 armored-car robbery that led to the deaths of two Nyack police officers and a security guard. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, had commuted Clark’s sentence to make her eligible for parole.
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)