One of the highlights of 2016 was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party (BPP), which alumni marked with celebrations and gatherings around the country. But a painful side of the 50-year mark is how many former Panthers and affiliates are still languishing in America’s prisons. The context in which members of the BPP and its underground offshoot, the Black Liberation Army (BLA), were charged, tried, convicted and sentenced supports some of their claims of political repression.
The Black Panther Party promoted armed self-defense against rampant police brutality and anti-capitalist revolution. Their militarized stance, along with “survival programs” such as free sickle cell anemia testing, attracted the intense ire of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Richard Nixon.
Hoover’s FBI had been infiltrating, spying on and disrupting various political groups through the convert counterintelligence program COINTELPRO since its inception in 1956. The Communist Party was the first target, but by the mid-1960s, leaders and organizations classified as Black nationalist were priorities. In one revealing office memo, Hoover described the BPP’s free breakfast program—not its guns—as “the greatest threat to internal security of the country.” The Panthers were also on Nixon’s infamous political enemies list.
By portraying the BPP as a major threat, Nixon and the FBI gave local authorities permission and incentives to help infiltrate, surveil, lie to, raid, frame, injure, murder and incarcerate dozens of BPP members and affiliates. In this climate, BPP and affiliates often faced manufactured or excessive criminal charges. Some were convicted due to false, inconclusive or non-existent evidence. Some were tortured into confessing to crimes they did not commit. Witnesses were frequently coerced into lying on the stand or not called at all. Prosecutors concealed evidence and relied on the testimony of paid informants. Judges were blatant about their racial bias.
The majority of BPP and BLA prisoners have appealed their convictions, a slow process that doesn’t tend to allow for challenging evidence presented in an original trial. Their appeals focus on introducing new evidence and proving a lack of due process. Because most of these cases involve the death of a police officer, BPP and BLA prisoners up for parole are frequently stymied by pressure from victims’ families and police unions. Many have been held in solitary confinement, some for decades.
Here is a list of BPP and BLA participants still behind bars and the amount of time served. Based on court documents associated with their appeals and news reports, we also present the broad strokes of controversy surrounding their cases. Their names are in alphabetical order.
Affiliation: Abu-Jamal joined the Philadelphia chapter of the BPP at age 15 in 1967. After a brief stint, he went on to become a progressive radio journalist and affiliate of the MOVE organization.Conviction: In 1982 for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner Sentence: Death Case controversy: Witnesses said that they saw a man they believed to be the shooter fleeing the scene. >> Ballistics testing confirms that Abu-Jamal himself was shot at the scene by Faulkner. Some witnesses didn’t come forward; others have changed their stories since testifying in 1982. >> Supporters say that the prosecution withheld and falsified evidence.Time incarcerated: After 30 years on death row, Abu-Jamal’s sentence was commuted to life without parole. He has been in prison a total of 34 years. Support website: www.freemumia.com
Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (aka H. Rap Brown)
Affiliation: After serving as chairman of the Student Non-Violent Organizing Committee, Al-Amin briefly joined the BPP in 1968.Conviction: 2002 for the 2000 murder of Sheriff’s Deputy Ricky Kinchen in Fulton County, Ga.Sentence: Life in prison without possibility of parole Case controversy: The FBI amassed a 44,000-page file on Al-Amin while surveilling him within his Muslim community and failed to connect him to any crime. >>Al-Amin was not wounded in the 2000 shootout with police that led to the death of Kinchen. >>An officer who was injured during the confrontation claimed that the shooter was wounded. >>During a manhunt for Al-Amin following the shooting, police reported finding signs that the assailant was wounded. >>Al-Amin’s fingerprints were not found on the murder weapon. >> Three months after the shooting, a fugitive from Atlanta who was captured in Nevada claimed he he killed Kinchen. >> Five years after his conviction, Al-Amin was transferred to the federal prison system. Time incarcerated: 16 years.Support website: www.imamjamilactionnetwork.weebly.com*
Affiliation: BPP, BLAConviction: With co-defendant Assata Shakur in 1974 for the murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster. Sentence: Life plus 30 years in prisonCase controversy: Sundiata Acoli was driving a car on the New Jersey Turnpike with passengers Assata and Zayd Malik Shakur. A traffic stop by state troopers resulted in a shoot-out in which Assata was injured and Zayd was killed. Foerster was killed and another officer was injured. >> Acoli and co-defendant Shakur unsuccessfully sought to have their case tried in federal court -rather than state court, citing the small Black population of Morris County. >> Acoli was confined to special unit in a New Jersey prison, and let out only 10 minutes a day for showers and twice a week for recreation. >> Despite not being a federal inmate, he has been transferred to several federal prisons in Marion, Ill. and Fort Leavenworth, Kans. beginning in 1979. >>Although the parole board was ordered by state appeals court in New Jersey in 2014 to set terms for his release, the parole board again denied the appeal in 2016.Time incarcerated: 43 yearsSupport website: www.sundiataacoli.org
Affiliation: BPPConviction: In 1974, of the 1971 murder of two New York City Police Officers Joseph Piagentini and Waverly JonesSentence: 25 years to life in prisonCase controversy: Herman Bell was one of five defendants collectively known as the New York 5. Their first trial ended in a hung jury. During the second trial, charges against co-defendants Gabriel and Francisco Torres were dropped due to a lack of evidence. >> Bell claims that he and the remaining defendants, Albert Nuh Washington and Jalil Abdul Muntaqim, were convicted based on coerced witness statements, manufactured and circumstantial evidence and prosecutorial and judicial misconduct. >> No eyewitnesses identified Bell as a shooter. >> Bell’s defense team claims that the prosecution withheld exculpatory ballistics evidence. >> They also claim that misleading charges and courtroom bias resulted in Bell being denied due process and the right to a fair trial. >> Bell argues he was illegally extradited from Louisiana to New York to stand trial.Time incarcerated: 43 yearsSupport website: www.freehermanbell.org
Affiliation: BPPConviction: In 1974 of the 1973 murder of U.S. Park Ranger Kenneth Patrick, in Marin County, Calif. Sentence: Life in prisonCase controversy: Bowers was convicted primarily on the eyewitness testimony of a police informant. The informant, who claimed he was with Bowers at the time of the murder, had previously been a co-defendant in the same case. After their cases were severed and the informant testified against Bowers, the informant’s case was dismissed. >> On appeal, Bowers challenged the search warrant and procedural fairness of his trial. >> Supporters believe that evidence seized during the search of Bowers’ residence should not have been used in trial. >> After mandatory parole was granted in 2005 by the regional parole commission, Bowers’ release was interrupted by the unusual intervention of the federal United States Parole Commission and the involvement of then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. In 2011, the U.S. Parole Commission re-voted and denied mandatory parole.Time incarcerated: 43 yearsSupport website: http://veronza.org/
Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald
Affiliation: BPP Conviction: In 1970 for the 1969 murder of a mall security guard, Barge Miller. Also for attempted murder of a California highway patrolman in a shootout following a traffic stopSentence: Fitzgerald was sentenced to death. When the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty in 1972, California commuted both of his sentences to life in prison with possibility of parole.Case controversy: During Fitzgerald’s attempted murder trial, a police officer testified that he had orders to shoot members of the Black Panther Party. The judge ordered the jury to ignore that statement.>> In the case of the security guard murder, Fitzgerald says he was at home with his sister that night, but his alibi was ignored. >> A witness who says he saw Fitzgerald fleeing the scene could not identify him in photographs. During cross-examination, the witness could not describe him to the judge without looking at Fitzgerald. >> In appealing his conviction, Fitzgerald unsuccessfully argued that the evidence used to convict him was insufficient and that his rights to an attorney were denied as he had sought to have his court appointed attorney replaced.Years incarcerated: 46. Several years in solitary confinement led him to stage a hunger strike in 2010. Although eligible for parole since 1976, he has been denied repeatedly for decades. Support website: www.abcf.net/abc/pdfs/chip.pdf
Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore aka Eusi Zulu Heshima
Affiliation: BPPConviction: In 1977 for the 973 murder of Marshall Bond, former mayor of Zachary, La., Sentence: Life plus 99 years in prisonCase controversy: Heshima, who was 18 at the time of the murder, says he rode out to Bond’s farm with another man who claimed to be seeking work. Heshima maintains that he was waiting in the car while the man robbed and killed Bond. Heshima was arrested on an unrelated robbery charge 18 months after the murder. >> According to The Advocate, Heshima claims he was interrogated for almost two days by police who threatened and physically abused and denied him food or sleep. “I was intimidated and threatened and told I would spend the rest of my life in Angola if I did not provide the information they asked for,” The Advocate reports Whitmore as stating. >> Heshima also claims that additional recorded statements that were made during a polygraph test might have cleared him. Time incarcerated: In April 2016, Whitmore was moved to general population after spending 34 of the previous 36 years in solitary confinement. Support website: www.medilljusticeproject.org
Ruchell “Cinque” Magee
Affiliation: BPPConviction: Pleaded guilty to aggravated kidnapping for his part in the 1970 Marin County Courthouse takeover. Sentence: Life in prison without the possibility of paroleCase controversy: In August 1970, 17-year-old Johnathan Jackson took a judge, district attorney and three jurors hostage at the Marin County Courthouse in an effort to free his brother, Johnathan and the two other Soledad Brothers. Magee happened to be on the stand serving as a character witness in an urelated case, but he and two other bystanders helped with the takeover. Johnathan and Superior Court Judge Harold Haley were killed. >> Magee sought to make the legal argument that incarceration was equivalent to slavery and that the attempt to free the Soledad brothers was justified in accordance with the Supreme Court’s decision in the Amistad case. >> Magee’s trial ended in a hung jury with the jury leaning heavily toward acquittal for murder, aggravated kidnapping and simple kidnapping. Magee pleaded guilty to aggravated kidnapping, he says, out of frustration. His attempts to withdraw the guilty plea and have a new trial were rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.Years incarcerated: 53Support website: www.thejerichomovement.com/profile/magee-ruchell-cinque
Jalil Abdul Muntaqim (aka Anthony Bottom)
Affiliation: BPP, BLAConviction: Along with Herman Bell and Albert Nuh Washington, Muntaqim, convicted of the 1971 murder of two police officers in Harlem, Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Sentence: Two concurrent prison terms of 25 years to lifeCase controversy: Muntaqim was tried and convicted along with co-defendants Bell and Washington largely on circumstantial evidence. >> On appeal, he argued that his constitutional rights were violated and the integrity of the grand jury was impaired on the grounds that the prosecution knowingly used a police detective’s false testimony about ballistics testing. >> An important FBI ballistics report was kept secret by the prosecution during the trial. >> Muntaqim and others argued that they were denied a fair trial because two witnesses told prosecutors that a third man with a gun was at the scene of the crime and recanted their testimony. Prosecutors failed to share this information with the defense before the trial. Time incarcerated: Although eligible for parole in 2002, Muntaqim was denied for the ninth time in 2016. He has been incarcerated for 45 years.Support website: www.freejalil.com
Affiliation: BPPConviction: Transporting a shotgun across state lines in 1970 Sentence: Four years in prisonCase controversy: Pete O’Neal founded the Kansas City chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1969. Later that year, an off duty police officer who tried to stop a robbery was killed with a shotgun that police say O’Neal brought across state lines, from Kansas City, Kan., to Kansas City, Mo. >> O’Neal says that as head of the chapter, he was routinely harassed by police. >> O’Neal did not have the gun when he was arrested. >> Police had confiscated the gun from another man nine months earlier. >>A photo of O’Neal with the shotgun in Missouri was used as evidence to convict him, but police had no evidence that O’Neal transported it over state lines.Time incarcerated: O’Neal fled to Tanzania rather than go to prison for crime he says he didn’t commit. He has been a fugitive for 46 years. Support website: www.caseforapardon.com/atty_gen_letter_sign.php
Affiliation: BPPConviction: First degree murder of Omaha Police Officer Larry Minard in 1970Sentence: Life in prisonCase controversy: Minard was killed by a suitcase bomb placed in an abandoned house he come to in response to a phony 911 call. Poindexter was convicted on the testimony of 15-year-old boy he knew through organizing. The boy, Duane Peak, reportedly made the call and planted the bomb. >> Evidence that Poindexter’s hands had tested negative for dynamite residue found on his clothes was withheld from the jury. >> Appeals to the state argued that the evidence seized during a search of a co-defendant’s home was obtained under an illegal search warrant. >> Eight years after the trial, an FBI memo surfaced showing cooperation between police and FBI in suppressing a 911 tape as evidence that might have demonstrated Poindexter’s innocence. Likewise, court documents reveal that Omaha police had been monitoring the activities of Poindexter for two years prior to the murder.Time incarcerated: 46 yearsSupport effort: www.n2pp.info/index.htm
Affiliation: BPPConviction: In 1977 of murdering New Jersey State Trooper Warner Foester Sentence: Life in prisonCase controversy: A pathologist and neurologist testified based on injuries she sustained during shootout, she could not have pulled a gun trigger. >>Shakur had no gunpowder residue on her fingers and her fingerprints were not on any weapons .>> A judge denied her request to subpoena the FBI director to testify about COINTELPRO.Time incarcerated: Shakur was kept in solitary confinement for 21 months. She escaped a New Jersey prison in 1979 and was granted political asylum in Cuba in 1984. In 2005, the FBI classified her as a domestic terrorist. In 2013 the FBI added her to its Most Wanted Terrorist list.Support website: None reliable due to suspected hacking
Affiliation: According to his official bio, Shakur worked with BPP and the Revolutionary Action Movement, and was a member of the provisional government of the Republic of New Afrika. Shakur has also spoken of his affiliation with the BLA.** Conviction: In 1988 with helping Assata Shakur escape from prison in 1979. He was also convicted on RICO charges connected to an October 20, 1981 Brinks truck robbery in which a guard, Peter Paige, and two Nyack, New York, police officers, Edward O’Grady and Waverly Brown, were killed. Sentence: 60 years in prisonCase controversy: Shakur claims that the prosecution failed connect him to the evidence used to convict him. >> A government informant who participated in Brink truck robbery testified against Shakur then received $110,000 in material benefits and a reduced sentence. Time incarcerated: 30 years. Shakur was denied parole in 2016. Support website: www.mutulushakur.com
Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz (aka Russell Shoats)
Affiliation: BPP, BLAConviction: In 1970 of murdering Philadelphia Police Sgt. Frank Von Colln Sentence: Life in prison Case controversy: Shoatz underwent several police interrogations over a 20-hour period without legal representation. >> Supporters claim that guns taken into evidence were obtained by illegal police search and seizure. >> Supporters argue that witnesses who identified Shoatz at the scene were influenced by police suggestions. >> Supporters also contend that weapons seized during his arrest shouldn’t have been admitted as evidence because they were not used in the crime. The court insisted that the weapons were relevant. On appeal, his conviction was upheld in a 4-2 decision. (The dissenting opinion would have reversed the conviction and remanded a new trial.) >> It took a court order in 2016 to release him from 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement for 22 consecutive years in a 7- by 12-foot cell, with the lights on at all times. Supporters consider his treatment in prison retaliation for his political views and activism.Time incarcerated: 44 years.Support website: https://russellmaroonshoats.wordpress.com/
Kamau Sidiki (aka Freddie Hilton)
Affiliation: BPP, BPAConviction: In 2003 of armed robbery and malice murder of an Atlanta police officer, James Green in 1971Sentence: Life plus 10 years in prisonCase controversy: No physical evidence tied Sidiki to the crime. >> Sidiki was arrested in New York City on weapons charge 31 years after Green was murdered. >> Supporters say the case was reopened in 1999 after Sidiki refused to cooperate with government attempts to recapture Assata Shakur. >> In appealing his case, Sidiki argued that the prosecution excluded testimony from the wife of a man who admitted that he and another man killed Green. Time incarcerated:12 years.Support website: www.freekamau.com/
Seth Ben Ysaac Ben Ysrael (aka Robert ‘Seth’ Hayes)
Affiliation: BPP, BLA Conviction: The 1974 murder of a transit officer, Sidney Thompson; eight counts of attempted murder of a police officer; car theft at gunpoint, and other related charges Sentence: 25 years to life in prison Case controversy: In Ysrael’s account, he was framed for the fatal shooting of Thompson at a Bronx train station. Ysrael was convicted of stealing a car at gunpoint and using the vehicle to get his wounded friend to a hospital. His attempted murder charges stem from his resistance to officers who stormed into his home to arrest him. >> Because of the length of his incarceration and parole denial 10 times, despite an exemplary record, supporters say his incarceration is political in nature. >> He appealed his conviction; the ruling was upheld.Time incarcerated: 43 yearsSupport website: https://fundrazr.com/campaigns/810a58
DIED WHILE INCARCERATED:
- Kuwasi Balagoom aka Donald Weems died December 13, 1986 after serving five years.
- Bashir Hameed, aka James Dixon, died August 3, 2008 after serving 26 years.
- Teddy Jah Heath died in 2001 after serving 28 years.
- Abdullah Majid died April 3, 2016 after serving 34 years.
- David Rice, aka Mondo we Langa, died March 11, 2016 after serving 45 years.
- Herman Wallace died October 3, 2013 after serving 41 years.
- Albert “Nuh” Washington died April 28, 2000 after serving 29 years.
- Warren Wells Sr. died June 29, 2001 after serving 18 years.
- Safiyah Bukhari was incarcerated for 8 years and 8 months; released in 1983.
- Marshall Eddie Conway was incarcerated 43 years, released in March 2014.
- Masai Ehosai was incarcerated for 14 years; release date unknown.
- Jack Ivory Johnson was incarcerated 38 years; released in May 2010.
- Sekou Kambui was incarcerated for 39 years; released June 30, 2014.
- Robert King was incarcerated for 29 years; released in 2001.
- Malik Shakur Latine was incarcerated for 37 years; released in December 2016
- Sekou Odinga was incarcerated for 30 years; released in November 2014.
- Ashanti Alston Omowali was incarcerated for 11 years; released in 1985.
- Dhoruba bin Wahad was incarcerated for 19 years; released in March 1990.
- Albert Woodfox was incarcerated for 44 years; released in February 2016.
Bakari Kitwana is the executive director of Rap Sessions, which is currently touring the nation leading town hall discussions on the theme “Election 2016: Reform or Revolution?” He is the author of the forthcoming “Hip-Hop Activism in the Obama Era.”
*The support website of Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin has been updated since publication.
**Mutulu Shakur’s affiliations have been updated since publication for precision.