The parole of Herman Bell last week after 44 years has released a 70-year-old man from prison – Shawagunk Correctional Facility in Ulster County – and unleashed a torrent of outrage from various quarters. Backlash comes unanimously from the family of one of the cops he was convicted of killing. Diane Piagentini, widow of one of the slain officers, had petitioned the court for Bell to remain in prison but was told she had no standing in the matter.
Police Commissioner James O’Neill blasted the decision, as did Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association head Patrick Lynch. Mayor de Blasio expressed his disapproval, and so did Governor Cuomo – who has been touting plans for prison reform and parolee rehabilitation. But a strident and potentially consequential outcry is coming from another quarter as well.
Among those claiming to be mightily aggrieved (in an election year) are Republicans in the state Senate. Majority Leader John Flanagan of Suffolk County announced the approval of new bills in reaction to Bell’s parole, including one mandating that persons convicted of killing a cop serve life sentences with no parole. Flanagan also opposes Governor Cuomo’s recent announcement (stated) decision to allow prisoners paroled on felony charges to have their voting rights restored.
The spotlight accompanying Bell’s release has served to bring attention to aspects of his story that the general public would not routinely know, such as concerns about how his case was handled, his contributions to society while an inmate, and the conditions under which he was imprisoned.
In 1973, Bell was arrested in San Francisco and extradited to New York City for the 1971 murder of NYPD Officers Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini. It was said that he and co-defendants Albert Washington and Anthony Bottoms lured the cops into a Harlem building with a bogus 911 call in order to execute them. Bell pled not guilty, the prosecution produced no eyewitnesses and his first trial ended with a hung jury. He was convicted in a second trial in 1979 after being held for six years and, along with his co-defendants, sentenced to 25 years to life. He charged that as a former Black Panther and member of the Black Liberation Army, he had been framed under the F.B.I.’s COINTELPRO operations.
Bell had no disciplinary infractions over the last 20 years of his incarceration. He earned dual bachelor’s degrees in psychology and sociology, a master’s degree in sociology, mentored thousands of young inmates, taught English and Black History, and coached football and basketball. His charitable endeavors included co-founding the Victory Gardens Project in 2004, in which rural and urban dwellers worked together to plant, harvest and distribute food in Brooklyn, Harlem, the Bronx, New Jersey and Maine. He created an essay contest with monetary prizes for middle school students and a calendar depicting historic struggles for justice, with the proceeds from sales donated to community-based groups.
Manny Jones, the brother of slain Police Officer Waverly Jones, decried Bell’s release by saying, “He should come home when my brother comes home.” But the officer’s son, Waverly Jones, Jr., communicated his wishes for Bell’s release at a meeting he requested with the Parole Board in 2004 and again in a statement he had Bell’s attorney Robert Boyle read at a press conference at the headquarters of the Center for Constitutional Rights on March 23rd:
“The media-fueled hysteria concerning the Parole Board’s decision to release Herman Bell has caused me much distress. It seems that individuals with no knowledge of Mr. Bell or the circumstances that led me to support his release many years ago have taken it upon themselves to drum up hate and vengeance.”
In September 2017, several prison guards, one of whom claimed to have been attacked by him, viciously beat Bell, who was then moved to solitary confinement despite his injuries. But in January of this year, Correction Officer Jeremy Saunders was suspended, accused, along with two other guards, of attacking Bell. Had he been accused of assaulting the officers, it would have surely have jeopardized his chances for this recent parole after his eighth time before the board. And at his age, Bell is in a recidivism bracket of less than four percent.
Violent crime has been steadily dropping, but according to a January 2017 report from The Sentencing Project, the number of people serving life sentences has increased nearly fivefold since 1984 and, “… criminal justice reform has largely excluded people in prison with life sentences. This growing ‘lifer’ population both illustrates and contributes to the persistence of mass incarceration.”
As time served in prison for lifers has increased, the percentage of parole approvals dropped. The Parole Board denies three out of four applications, most predictably, high-profile cases such as Bell’s, where board chiefs are often removed from their $100,000, three-day-a-week jobs after a prisoner denigrated by loud and/or powerful voices is released. Having lost this round, those in opposition are surely preparing for a frenzied campaign against the release of Bottoms, up for parole in June. Albert Washington, who was convicted earlier than Bell in the same case, died of liver cancer in 2000. His co-defendant, Jalil Muntaqim, remains in prison.
Herman Bell is back in Brooklyn with his family. His attorney says he is declining to comment at this time out of respect for the victim’s families.