WHAT WE THINK: Before President Obama tries opening doors for Cuba, I wrote in one of CLIFFVIEW PILOT‘s first-ever editorials 5½ years ago , there’s an outstanding matter here in New Jersey that must be resolved first.
In May 1973, during a motor vehicle stop, Joanne Chesimard gunned down a New Jersey State trooper. She was sentenced to life in prison but escaped and fled to Cuba, where she was granted political asylum.
Those of us with long memories (and there are many of us who do) want Chesimard extradited to the U.S. to face her just due before she dies.
Chesimard has reared her head now and then — at times, it seems, to thumb her nose at the United States — offering interviews to Newsday, among others, and writing books.
Nearly a decade ago, our State Police increased the American bounty on her once-Afro’d head to $1 million, the highest ever for a New Jersey fugitive.
“She is now 120 pounds of money,” Supt. Col. Rick Fuentes said at the time.
A year and a half ago, on the 40th anniversary of the bloody gunbattle, the reward was doubled to $2 million.
Some said the bounty would force her to drop out of sight after living so openly that she listed her number in the phone book.
Yes, isolationism hasn’t worked. We’ve paid dearly as a nation for the nose cutting.
But that doesn’t mean we should look the other way on this most important of matters merely for the sake of appeasement.
Quick history lesson:
Assata Olugbala Shakur (born July 16, 1947) as JoAnne Deborah Byron, married name Chesimard, is an African-American activist who was a member of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and Black Liberation Army (BLA).
Both groups eluded convictions in several crimes in the early 1970s, including shootings, a bank holdup and a hand-grenade attempt that blew up a police car. Then, on a fateful night on the New Jersey Turnpike, an innocent trooper, Werner Foerster, was shot and killed and his partner, James Harper, wounded in a shootout with Chesimard and BLA member Zayd Malik Shakur, who was also killed.
If the name sounds familiar, that’s because Chesimard was Tupac’s great aunt.
Jurors convicted Chesimard of first degree murder in 1977, along with other crimes connected with the shootout.
Additional charges followed — until she escaped from prison in 1979.
She’s been living under political asylum in Cuba the past 40 years. With no hope of catching her, the FBI in 2005 dubbed her a “domestic terrorist” and put a $1 million bounty on her head.
Chesimard’s face was on every police officer’s docket sheet in 1972, after the FBI alleged that she was the “revolutionary mother hen” of a Black Liberation Army cell that had conducted a “series of cold-blooded murders of New York City police officers” including the “execution-style murders” of four NYPD uniforms.
Some sources called her the leader and “soul of the Black Liberation Army” after the arrest of cofounder Dhoruba Moore. Former NY Police Commissioner Robert Daley said she “kept them moving, kept them shooting.”
On May 2, 1973, at about 12:45 a.m., N.J. State Trooper James Harper stopped a Pontiac Lemans with Vermont pltes for having a broken tail light and “slightly exceeding” the speed limit on the Turnpike.
Inside the stopped car was Chesimard, along with the drier, Zayd Malik Shakur (born James F. Costan), and Sundiata Acoli (born Clark Squire).
Trooper Foerster pulled in behind as backup — barely 200 yards south of the Turnpike Authority administrator building at Exit 9 on the Pike (if you know Jersey).
Trooper Harper asked the driver for ID, noticed some kind of discrepancy, and asked him to get out. A struggle ensued and two shots fired by Trooper Foerster own gun struck him in the head.
At trial, Harper said that Foerster reached into the vehicle, pulled out and held up an automatic pistol and ammunition clip, and said “Jim, look what I found,” while facing Harper at the rear of the vehicle.
Both Chesimard and Acoli were ordered to put their hands on their laps and not move. At that point, Harper, Chesimard reached down to the right of her right leg, pulled out a pistol, and shot him in the shoulder.
Harper testified that Acoli shot Foerster with a .38 caliber automatic pistol and then used Foerster’s own gun to “execute him.”
Chesimard was caught five miles down the road across from the Joyce Kilmer Service area.
Seven different trials followed, involving for bank robberies, kidnapping and other felonies. The results: three acquittals, a hung jury, a mistrial, and a single conviction.
Then came the Turnpike trial.
Headlines and spotlights followed the nine-week trial, which featured more than the usual stunts and drama from hyperbolic defense attorney William Kunstler.
Under cross-examination, Shakur was unable to explain how three clips of ammunition and 16 live shells had gotten into her shoulder bag.
The clincer in the trial was heard on tape, as Trooper Ronald Foster, the State Police radio operator, shouts into his microphone “They just shot Harper! Be on the lookout for this car!” and “It is a Pontiac. It’s got one tail light”
Jurors convicted Chesimard as an accomplice in the murders of both Foerster and Shakur — more than enough for the state of New Jersey, which penalizes such convictions with life prison terms.
Chesimard said she was “ashamed that I have even taken part in this trial” and that the jury was “racist” and had “convicted a woman with her hands up.”
She later was sentenced to 26 to 33 years in state prison, which were to be served consecutively with her mandatory life term.
It didn’t take long for Chesimard to bolt the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey, after three members of the Black Liberation Army visiting her drew concealed .45-caliber pistols, seized two guards as hostages and commandeered a prison van.
In New York, three days after her escape, thousands of demonstrators organized by the National Black Human Rights Coalition carried signs supporting her.
Chesimard flew to Cuba in 1984. She’s since been reuinited with her daughter, published two books, and has worked as an English-language editor for Radio Havana Cuba.
Before taking ill and transferring his presidential duties, Fidel Castro in May 2005 called Shakur a victim of racial persecution, saying the U.S. “wanted to portray her as a terrorist, something that was an injustice, a brutality, an infamous lie.”
In 1997, then NJSP Supt. Carl Williams wrote to Pope John Paul II asking him to raise the issue of Chesimard’s extradition during his talks with President Fidel Castro.
In March 1998 then-New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman asked Attorney General Janet Reno to do what she could to return Chesimard.
Several months later, the U.S. Congress adopted a non-binding seeking the “return” from Cuba of Shakur and 90 other fugitives believed to be there.
To this point, all efforts failed.
It’s now up to Obama.
With one hand, he offers Cuba an amazing opportunity. With the other, he must insist it pay a pittance by handing over New Jersey’s Public Enemy No. 1.
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