Judge Suspends Release of Herman Bell, Elderly Black Panther Jailed 45 Years, Amid Police Pressure

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A judge in New York has suspended the release of Herman Bell, a 70-year-old prisoner who has been granted parole after 45 years in prison. Bell was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for the killing of two New York City police officers in 1971. At the time, he was a member of the Black Liberation Army and a former Black Panther. Since then, he has mentored thousands of young men while behind bars and kept a clean disciplinary record. State-mandated tests show he would pose the lowest possible risk if he is allowed to re-enter society. In March, the New York Parole Board granted parole for Bell, noting he had expressed remorse and was likely to lead a “law-abiding life.” State law requires commissioners to consider such factors, but they’ve only recently started to comply. On Wednesday, a state judge agreed to hear a challenge from the widow of one of the officers, who says the board violated procedure. A hearing on the petition is set for April 13, just days before Bell’s earliest originally scheduled release date. We speak with Robert Boyle, lawyer for Herman Bell, who says the board followed the rules. We are also joined by Jose Saldaña, who was incarcerated in New York until he was released by the parole board earlier this year in January, after 38 years inside. He knew Herman Bell and is now an organizer with the group RAPP, Release Aging People from Prison, who has helped push for parole reform.

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We end today’s show here in New York, where a judge has suspended the release of a 70-year-old prisoner who’s been granted parole after 45 years in prison.

Herman Bell was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for the killing of two police officers in 1971, Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones. At the time, Bell was a member of the Black Liberation Army and a former Black Panther. Since then, he has mentored thousands of young men while behind bars and kept a clean disciplinary record—even after guards brutally attacked him in September. State-mandated tests show he would pose the lowest possible risk if he’s allowed to re-enter society.

In March, the New York Parole Board granted Herman Bell parole, noting he had expressed remorse and was likely to lead a law-abiding life. State law requires commissioners to consider such factors, but they’ve only recently started to comply, after a campaign for reform. A New York Times editorial hailed Bell’s release, in an editorial, saying, quote, “[T]he process worked as it should if parole is to amount to more than an empty word,” unquote.

In its decision, the parole board cited a letter from the namesake son of one of the victims, Waverly Jones Jr., who wrote that he and some members of his family supported Bell’s release, saying, quote, “The simple answer is it would bring joy and peace as we have already forgiven Herman Bell publicly. … On the other hand, to deny him parole again would cause us pain as we are reminded of the painful episode each time he appears before the board,” again, the son of the slain police officer wrote.

But other family members of the slain officers, as well as the police union, known as the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the PBA, have called for the board to reverse its vote, along with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. On Wednesday, a state judge agreed to hear a challenge from the widow of Officer Piagentini, who says the board violated procedure in its decision. A hearing on the petition is set for April 13th, a week from today, just days before Bell’s earliest originally scheduled release date.

For more, we’re joined by Herman Bell’s lawyer, Bob Boyle, and by Jose Saldaña, who was formerly incarcerated in New York state prison and was released by the parole board earlier this year, in January, after 38 years inside. He knew Herman Bell and is now an organizer with the group RAPP—that’s Release Aging People from Prison—which has helped push for parole reform.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Bob Boyle, welcome back.

ROBERT BOYLE: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Herman Bell’s case today.

ROBERT BOYLE: Well, Herman Bell, as you said, served 46 years in prison and was granted parole on his eighth appearance before the parole board, where he satisfied all the criteria. On this—just a couple of days ago, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, using, I would say, the widow of Officer Piagentini, filed a suit in state Supreme Court in Albany to block his release. And it’s really an unprecedented action, although it’s been tried in some cases before and failed, in that the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association is exercising, I would argue, undue influence over the criminal justice process. And they are bringing this lawsuit to block the release of someone who’s satisfied every criteria for parole. And it really shows their power, that they could influence even Mayor Bill de Blasio to come out with a statement saying Herman Bell should never be paroled, when that’s actually contrary to the law, because he satisfies all the criteria for release. And this was done by parole commissioners who spent two hours with him, reviewed mountains of material, everything they had to do, and finally, on his eighth appearance, granted him parole.

AMY GOODMAN: This is New York state Senator Marty Golden speaking on Fox & Friends back in March about the New York Parole Board’s decision to release Herman Bell.

SEN. MARTIN GOLDEN: This is where the board acted inappropriately, and this is why we believe that this board should be taken apart, fired. One of them is that they have to consider whether the crime is so heinous that their release would undermine the respect for the law.

PETE HEGSETH: Yes.

SEN. MARTIN GOLDEN: And guess what. They didn’t do that. Right? Seven previous boards—seven previous boards said that the release would depreciate the severity of the crime. So how do seven boards come up with that, and this board comes up with their decision?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s New York state Senator Marty Golden. Did they break the rules, or did they follow the rules?

ROBERT BOYLE: They followed the rules. The point he is making, the seriousness of the offense will never change. But people do change, who are behind the wall. And Herman Bell has shown that he’s changed. So, on his eighth appearance after 46 years, the board recognized this and did what they were supposed to do by releasing him, ordering his release.

AMY GOODMAN: Jose Saldaña, you were just recently released from prison.

JOSE SALDAÑA: Yes, I was.

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re involved with working particularly for elderly prisoners to get out of jail.

JOSE SALDAÑA: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You knew Herman Bell in jail.

JOSE SALDAÑA: Yes, I did.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what he did there.

JOSE SALDAÑA: Well, Herman was a great influence in me transforming my life. And he helped transform literally thousands of other people’s lives. You see now a lot of the formerly incarcerated people doing very positive things in the community, serving the community. These very same people were influenced by Herman Bell.

I’d like to address that this problem that we’re facing right now is a variation of the problem that I thought was corrected by the government. For years, I was a part of a group that called for parole reform. We said that the composition of the parole board needs to be changed, because you had a large majority of parole commissioners with certain backgrounds that didn’t allow them to consider rehabilitation. So they were systematically denying persons convicted of violent crimes, especially when the victim was a police officer, parole, based on their personal beliefs.

Last year, the governor appointed six new parole officers with backgrounds from behavioral sciences. And these backgrounds allowed them to consider rehabilitation. And this is exactly what happened. So the problem was deemed corrected. Now, they’re trying to come around the back door and do the same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Boyle, could Herman Bell still get out?

ROBERT BOYLE: Yes. I mean, the lawsuit that was filed was frivolous, because the board, in fact, considered everything they were supposed to, and made the right decision. And so, on a week from today, we hope that the judge will dismiss the suit, and so he will be released as scheduled.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the broader purpose of parole?

ROBERT BOYLE: It’s to recognize that someone has in fact changed and will lead a law-abiding life and contribute to the community. This is what the purpose of parole is, in the words of the New York statute, that it’s reasonably probable that the person will lead a law-abiding life. That’s the standard. And Herman Bell, for years, has satisfied that standard.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the son of the slain police officer, also named Waverly, writing this letter, saying that they support the parole of Herman Bell, Waverly Jones Jr.?

ROBERT BOYLE: Well, he actually has supported parole since 2004, as has his mother and his sister, when they wrote to Herman Bell and actually had a correspondence with him. And they have urged the parole board to grant parole. But what I’d like to add to that is, while that’s very important, it’s not the definitive thing. It’s not a debate between families of the victims. If someone satisfies the criteria for parole, they should get parole. It’s wonderful he did that, but it’s not determinative.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read just the tail end of what he wrote—again, the son of the slain officer, saying, “The fact is [that] Mr. Bell has taken responsibility for his actions, has expressed genuine remorse, is 70 years old and has been in prison for 45 years. In these times of increased hate, we need more compassion and forgiveness.” As you hear that, Jose Saldaña, your response?

JOSE SALDAÑA: I greatly admire his sense of justice, and I greatly admire the fact that he didn’t allow himself to be used for a racist, political agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the next date is April 13th.

ROBERT BOYLE: April 13th, we’ll be in court. And hopefully, the earliest release date is April 17th, and we hope to welcome him home on that day or in one of the succeeding days.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, and want to continue the conversation after the show with a web exclusive, that we’ll post online. Bob Boyle, lawyer for Herman Bell. Jose Saldaña, formerly incarcerated in New York state prison, knew Herman Bell well, now an organizer with the group RAPP, Release Aging People from Prison.

I want to wish Matt Ealy a happy birthday.

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