National News

Man Who Killed 2 Officers in ’71 Is to Be Released From Prison

Posted April 27, 2018 10:42 p.m. EDT

Herman Bell, who spent four decades in prison for the murders of two New York City police officers, was freed Friday, after having been granted parole in March, officials said.

The release of Bell, 70, ends a weekslong effort to keep him behind bars, including protests by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and a letter from Mayor Bill de Blasio urging the state parole board to reconsider its “tragic and incomprehensible” decision.

“Murdering a police officer in cold blood is a crime beyond the frontiers of rehabilitation or redemption,” de Blasio wrote in March to the board’s chairwoman.

In the end, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said it would comply with an order a judge issued last week to free Bell, and Friday evening, state officials said he had been released. They said he would be supervised, for life, in Brooklyn.

The two officers, Joseph A. Piagentini and Waverly M. Jones, were ambushed and fatally shot in the back outside a housing project in Harlem on May 21, 1971, a time when the city was rife with racial tension.

The Black Liberation Army, an offshoot of the Black Panther Party, took credit for the killings. Three men were charged — Bell, Anthony Bottom and Albert Washington. All claimed at trial that the violence was part of their war against the United States, and all were convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Bell entered state prison in 1979, state officials said.

After Bell was granted parole on March 13, in his eighth attempt, Piagentini’s widow, Diane, said the parole board had “betrayed the trust” of police families, and she filed court papers opposing the decision. But an acting state Supreme Court judge, Richard M. Koweek, determined that she did not have standing to make her challenge and ruled that judicial intervention was unnecessary in the board’s 2-1 vote to free Bell.

“It was not irrational,” the judge wrote of the board’s decision. “Nor did it border on impropriety. Therefore, it must be upheld.”

In a letter to Bell, the parole board wrote that he had matured and expressed remorse. The board reviewed several factors, including Bell’s age, scant disciplinary history and network of supporters, and said the state had prepared him well for release.

Koweek wrote that recourse for opponents of Bell’s parole may lie in legislation, and on Friday, Patrick J. Lynch, head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, called on lawmakers to “fix the broken” state parole system, close “loopholes” and “prevent other cop-killers from stepping foot outside prison walls.”

At an event on Puerto Rico on April 19, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, when asked if he supported the parole board’s decision to release Bell, said the board was independent, but that if he were on it, “I would not have made that decision.”