April 20, 2018
When a recent New York Times editorial praised the announced release of Herman Bell, a serial killer of police officers, it reasoned that "To lock him up forever even though deemed a changed man is to make a mockery of his sentence: ‘25 years to life' is not supposed to be cynical code for ‘life.'" Bell has expressed "regret and remorse," it asserts, and so any objections to his liberty must be regarded as political pandering. Assuming that any apology is sufficient for the vicious campaign of domestic terrorism Bell undertook, some cynicism is warranted in judging the sincerity of his repentance. For nearly four decades after his murders of Police Officers Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini, on May 26, 1971, Bell continued to insist that he had been framed, and that the government had no right to hold him in custody. He claimed to be both an innocent man and a prisoner of war. In recent years, he has said that he's sorry for killing the men. There is no reason to believe him, then or now.
Bell was convicted after two trials, along with two codefendants, Albert Washington and Anthony Bottom. Officers Piagentini and Jones were ambushed in Harlem when they were on patrol. Bottom shot Jones in the back of the head with a .45, and then in the neck, and then in the back, and then in the buttocks; Jones was dead before he hit the ground. In contrast, Bell's killing of Piagentini was cruelly prolonged. In the account of the prosecutor, Robert Tanenbaum, "Piagentini died the way a bull dies in the ring, his body scored and torn with a dozen wounds that left him alive long enough to feel the impact of each bullet." A witness said that Piagentini's last words were of his daughters, one and three years old. Bell kept on shooting until he ran out of ammunition. He then took Piagentini's gun and continued to fire at him. After Bottom robbed Jones of his gun, he finished off Piagentini.
Bell, Bottom, and Washington were part of a San Francisco-based cell of the Black Liberation Army, the underground "direct action" wing of the Black Panther Party. They had come to New York after the BLA had coordinated a series of bank robberies, bombings, and attempted assassinations of police officers in the Bay Area, in 1970 and early 1971. Among their other violent acts, the group detonated a bomb at a church during a police officer's funeral. After the murders of the NYPD officers, they returned to San Francisco, where Washington and Bottom drove up to a police sergeant and tried to open fire with a machine gun. The gun jammed, and the men were arrested. A day later, Bell led a raid on the Ingleside police station, fatally shooting Sgt. John Young in the chest with a shotgun. A civilian clerk was shot in the arm. A bomb the militants brought that might have levelled the building failed to explode.
Bell was arrested later in New Orleans, where another crew of BLA members had committed a string of bank robberies. Two handguns, a rifle, and two shotguns were recovered from his apartment, including the shotgun used to kill Sgt. Young. The robberies were committed to subsidize the ongoing program of police assassinations.
While on trial in New York for the Piagentini and Jones murders, Bell overpowered a corrections officer at Rikers Island with a sharpened stick and stole his keys before he was subdued. The evidence against him was compelling: witnesses identified him; his palm print was left at the scene; and Piagentini's gun was found near property belonging to his family in Mississippi. After the defendants were sentenced, a fortuitous search at the courthouse led to the recovery of lock picks, knives, and explosives, apparently smuggled to them by supporters.
At Anthony Bottom's last parole hearing, in 2016, a sense of contrition was difficult to discern. Below are excerpts from his interview with the board:
Bottom suffers no such lapses in memory when discussing politics, and he fulminates at length on the government misdeeds of the era. The parole commissioner was unpersuaded:
Bottom concludes by complaining, "I have been in prison the last 44 years where most everyone else has been released." He is correct on that count: many other domestic terrorists from the time have not only been freed; they have been celebrated. His next hearing is in June.
Why is there such sympathy for murderers who dedicated their lives to the destruction of their country? The Times editorial cites the case of Kathy Boudin in its support of Bell. Like him, she is responsible for three murders—those of two Nyack police officers, Waverly Brown and Edward O'Grady, as well as a guard named Peter Paige—committed during the robbery of an armored car in 1981. (The remaining members of the BLA had joined with the mostly white Weather Underground for that crime; as with previous robberies, it was intended to fund further police killings). Boudin was paroled in 2003. Since 2008, she has been a professor at Columbia University. One of her codefendants from the Brinks robbery, Jamal Joseph, is also a Columbia colleague. He was acquitted of the Brinks murders—as well as another bank robbery, in which another guard was killed—but was convicted of aiding other participants, and served several years in prison. Previously, he had served time for armed robbery and taking part in the torture and murder of a member of a rival Black Panther faction. Professor Joseph is head of the graduate film department. As for Professor Boudin, her faculty biography at the School of Social Work ("Make Waves. Move mountains. Change Lives.") also identifies her as the "Co-Director and Co-Founder of the Center for Justice at Columbia University."
In the case of Herman Bell, the Times editorial quotes his seemingly heartfelt recent admission that "There was nothing political about the act, as much as I thought about the time. It was murder and horribly wrong." A transcript of the 2018 hearing is unavailable at present, but an examination of earlier, failed interviews with the board, in 2012, 2014, and 2016, illustrate how he finally came around to saying something like what they wanted to hear. What has been represented as a change of heart is more likely a change of strategy.
Until 2010, Bell maintained his militant posture, denying everything except the righteousness of his cause. In his 2012 hearing, he no longer denies killing the officers, but he remains tight-lipped and sketchy on the details of the crime that left Joseph Piagentini bleeding from twenty-two wounds:
. . .
In general, Bell concedes as little as possible while attempting to satisfy the statutory requirements of accepting responsibility: "I wouldn't say I felt no sense of remorse. Um, I was caught up at a time when it was like a snowball rolling down a hill. It was nothing personally directed at any law enforcement person, per se..." Like Bottom, he becomes expansive when given an opportunity to discuss history more generally: "We were operating principally to more or less control the institutions within the black community itself. We sat on a course where—a non-violent course—and we had no particular interest in law enforcement as a particular entity that we should target, but we were targeting them because of what we were doing... And so, we received a tremendous amount of repression from the state, so we had no choice but to respond." He tends to trip himself up in these digressions, however, because he cannot bring himself to criticize the Black Panther Party. And the Party was founded on the explicit rejection of non-violence; mainstream civil rights leaders were held in contempt. Panthers endorsed the killing of law enforcement personnel at rallies and in the pages of their magazine. Bell was not expelled from the Party for the murder of police officers. Panthers did not fill the seats during his trials demanding that he apologize for killing Piagentini and Jones.
"I consider myself a political prisoner, but not a prisoner of war," Bell told the Parole Board then, which might not have appreciated the distinction. He also told them, "In hindsight I would just have chosen another way to go about doing it."
The decision to deny parole was unanimous.
Two years later, one of the parole commissioners addresses the political issue directly, early in the hearing:
Throughout the interview, Bell bristles at any suggestion that the Party deserves blame for the crimes committed by its members at its behest. The transcript is replete with testy exchanges:
. . .
At the end of the interview, Bell is asked if he has anything to add, and he finally obliges the commissioners with the expression of regret that was absent from his written submission: "I never believed that violence, you know, or the taking of a life is a good thing. I never believed in that. You know, a few years after I was sentenced, I rationalized the death of (Piagentini and Jones), you know, as a result of my—the revolution that I had embraced, I justified that, and that was a way that enabled me to do my time, okay. But after a time, it didn't work for me. 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...
"So what I'm saying to you, sir, is that coming to terms with the suffering that I have caused the victims and their families has been one of the most difficult but transformative parts of my prison experience, but I have changed in other ways, too. I remain a student of history and world events..."
It struck the board as too little, too late, in more ways than one. You know, for a few years after I was sentenced, I rationalized the death... Bell denied his crimes for thirty-five years, and he continues to rationalize them. All three commissioners denied parole.
In the 2016 hearings, Bell is far more forthcoming on the subject of personal responsibility: "Well, it was horrible. You know? It was totally wrong, and I feel remorse for it having happened. I wish it never did happen." On the whole, his recognition of the human dimension of his crime is vastly improved: "I can understand how the families would feel concerning my release. I can understand it, because they've suffered, and they have hurt, you know, but I hope they could find some compassion in their heart to understand that, you know, that time has passed, that mistakes have been made, and that I recognize my mistake, and that it was a horrible thing that I did and, you know, it would help me to think that they could find some forgiveness in their hearts and recognize that I'm a good person...
"I'm not a bad person, that I was caught up in a situation that—in the process of trying to do good, I did something very terribly wrong, that I did something bad, and that, you know, my activities wasn't focused on their loved ones per se."
Still, when pressed on the details of the crime, Bell reverts to his old practice of deflection and equivocation:
. . .
And he remains resolute in his defense of his comrades in arms: "Contrary to some historical accounts, the Black Panther Party did not advocate random acts of violence. We did not." One of the most compelling of those historical accounts, Bryan Burrough's Days of Rage, notes that "It was the Panther newspaper, The Black Panther, that coined the phrase ‘Off the Pig'...the Panther openly called for the murder of policemen, supplying tips on ambush tactics and ways to build bombs." The random acts of violence which Bell committed were wholly in accord with the party line.
Again, the three-person panel was unanimous: "After a review of the record, interview, and deliberation, the panel has determined that your release would be incompatible with the welfare and safety of society and would so deprecate the serious nature of the crimes as to undermine respect for the law."
What did Herman Bell say in 2018 that was different from what he said before? Maybe there was less talk about politics. Maybe there were even tears for Piagentini and Jones. He certainly had a better sense of the sentiments the Parole Board wanted him to express. But the most compelling statement about the murder of police officers that Herman Bell ever made wasn't to the Parole Board in upstate New York, in 2018. It was to a judge in California, in 2009, when he pled guilty to manslaughter for the shotgun killing Sgt. John Young at the Ingleside station. Anthony Bottom had pled guilty to conspiracy to commit manslaughter the week before. Both men received suspended sentences, along with periods of probation, that would be completed while serving their time for the New York murders. What was extraordinary about their guilty pleas was not the words themselves, which were few and tepid, but the negotiated terms of their surrender, as stated on the record by their attorneys.
Bell and Bottom's pleas were an act of collective bargaining: they agreed to admit guilt only if the charges against their codefendants were dismissed. In 2007, ten men were named in a wide-ranging affidavit accusing them of the murders and attempted murders of police officers, bank robberies and bombings, beginning in 1968 and continuing through 1973. Two defendants were dead, and one had been a fugitive since 1969. The prosecution had several cooperating witnesses, one of whom heard Bell berate a codefendant for his failure to set off a bomb during the assault on the Ingleside station. The same codefendant left a cigarette lighter with his fingerprint at the scene. After his arrest in 1971, Bottom admitted to the San Francisco police that he planted the bomb at the church. He also admitted that, along with Bell and others, he planted a bomb at the Mission Street Station, and shot an officer named Lawrence Heap. Still, given the age of the case and its politically charged nature—which included substantiated claims of police misconduct—it would have been an uphill struggle to win convictions.
Whether the prosecution might have obtained a harsher punishment or a fuller reckoning is moot. The judge did not require Bell to allocute to the crime in any detail—in later parole hearings, in New York, he would insist that he was only a lookout, and that he had no idea any killings were planned. What is clear is that Bell and Bottom made a clear strategic choice to accept nominal responsibility for the murder of a police officer, at negligible cost, so that their fellow killers would not be held to account. That is not the act of penitent men who have repudiated their pasts. Their intent was to obstruct justice, and they succeeded. Unlike Bell's prior attempts at jailbreak, this one was perfectly legal. Having dealt with the last homicide he was likely to be charged with, he could begin auditioning his halting apology in another jurisdiction. Here's his version in 2016: "And my statement to you is an attempt to set forth, you know, the complex journey that has enabled me to take responsibility for my actions..."
That is why Herman Bell suffered no loss of standing among his supporters when he finally admitted, after so many years, that he was in fact a multiple murderer and committed terrorist. He has not changed. He has barely pretended to change. He admits to some errors, some excesses: Mistakes have been made. His carefully crafted expressions of remorse only began after his appeals were exhausted and his additional legal liabilities were resolved. He has lied about his role in crimes for which he has been convicted—I was brought there to be a lookout. How it was planned, I do not know—and he has never offered his assistance in resolving the many acts of violence of which he has knowledge. In all, the BLA was responsible for scores of shooting, stabbing, and bombing attacks on police, killing at least fifteen officers. Others were killed and injured as well, in crimes solved and unsolved. At any moment during the 45 years Bell has spent incarcerated, he had the opportunity to try to make amends to his other victims. Instead, he has chosen to protect his co-conspirators.
The BLA and the Weather Underground were not freedom fighters whose ideals were shared by millions of disaffected Americans. They were a few dozen killers whose notion of a model republic was North Korea. There is no reason to doubt Bell when he states he was acting out of a belief in the historical necessity of his cause. The racism he fought against remains, within police departments and throughout society. But Bell did not dedicate his life to the improvement of America, still less the NYPD; he wanted all of it—all of us—dead and gone. When Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 of his fellow citizens, he saw it as an act of patriotism; when Omar Mateen gunned down forty-nine people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, he saw it as an act of devotion. Sincerity is not the primary problem with terrorists.
But the sincerity of Herman Bell cannot be accepted at face value, even if the Times is willing to do so. He knows a hero's welcome awaits him when his freedom is granted. As he told the Parole Board in 2016, "I expect that there will be people asking me to speak at various events, and in doing so I will bring a positive message and one of hope... A lot of what I engaged in in the past, that no longer applies today. I can only do positive things."
Herman Bell is a liar and a three-time killer, a terrorist who has refused to renounce terrorism in any way that matters. The Parole Board has indeed sent a message in releasing him, though the families of Joseph Piagentini, Waverly Jones, and John Young may not agree that it is positive or hopeful. The message to police officers in New York, San Francisco, and throughout the country is also painfully clear: Your sacrifices can and will be forgotten. Herman Bell should remain in prison until the end of his days. His mind has not changed, his heart has not opened, and his debt has not been paid.