NEW YORK (AP) — Since they became eligible for parole a decade ago, two aging ex-members of a militant black power group serving 25-years-to-life sentences for the 1971 killings of two New York City police officers have been routinely rejected for release after displaying little or no remorse.
Starting this week, Herman Bell and Anthony Bottom will again go before the state Parole Board to ask for freedom. But this time, it will be after admitting for the first time that they were involved in the execution-style slayings.
The admissions have reignited a debate over whether the men, who still call themselves political prisoners, have become rehabilitated after four decades in prison or are simply more willing to game the system.
"As long as they keep admitting they're political prisoners, then they aren't taking responsibility for their actions," said Diane Piagentini, the widow of one of the slain officers who still lives in the same Long Island home she bought with him before he was killed at 28. "They should never be paroled."
The case dates to the late 1960s and early '70s, when a violent offshoot of the Black Panthers called the Black Liberation Army 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. Declassified documents show the FBI then initiated a covert campaign to infiltrate and disrupt the BLA and other violent radical movements.
BLA members Bell, Bottom and an accomplice, who died in prison in 2000, called themselves the "New York 3." They denied killing the officers and insisted they'd been framed during their trial and after their convictions in 1975. Five years ago, they accepted plea deals and served probation sentences for their roles in the killing of a police sergeant shot inside a San Francisco stationhouse.
In their 2012 appearances before parole officials, both men admitted their roles in killing officers Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones, 33. The officers were shot multiple times after they'd responded to a report of a domestic dispute at a Harlem housing complex on May 21, 1971. Prosecutors said it was a trap set by Bell and Bottom.
"I began to see things in a way that I wanted to come clean," Bell said in 2012, according to a transcript. "I wanted to accept that fact that I committed this offense, I wanted to show remorse, but I didn't really know how to express that to the Board."
When pressed on why he'd maintained his innocence for so long, Bottom said, according to his transcript, "Who wants to acknowledge, who really wants to deal with the issues of killing another human being?"
Since being incarcerated, Bell, 66, has earned bachelor's and master's degrees, has learned to play the flute and corresponds with homeless New York City children. Bottom, now 62, has also earned a college degree, was credited with stopping prison riots and helped found an organic farm operation that brings healthy food to poor families.
Assessments have found both men to have a low risk of returning to prison, and each claims to have family support and job opportunities awaiting them on the outside.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the son of one of the officers, Waverly Jones Jr., has written in support of their release and told the Daily News of New York last month that Bell had served decades without getting "into so much as an argument."
Others are also pushing for the pair's release.
"If you want to talk about justice, it's been served," said Anne Lamb, the New York City co-chairwoman of The Jericho Movement, a group that advocates for political prisoners. "They have no reason to hold them in prison. It's not going to bring back Officer Piagentini or Officer Waverly Jones."
Advocates for the men argue the state Parole Board is unduly swayed by the powerful Patrolmen's Benevolent Association and others who exert pressure on parole denials even after the convicts serve their minimum sentences and meet all the other criteria required for release.
But the PBA is unfazed by the criticism and since September 2012 has maintained a website that has generated about 850,000 letters urging commissioners not to release Bell, Bottom and others convicted of killing a total of some 66 city officers.
Organizers hope to reach a million letters by next week, when Bell goes before the board for a sixth time. Bottom appears for his seventh time in June.