On March 13, Herman Bell was granted parole by a three-member panel of New York State’s Board of Parole. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Bell was convicted for the 1971 murder of two New York City police officers, Waverly M. Jones and Joseph A. Piagentini. Bell was sentenced to 25 years to life; he has currently served nearly 45 years, after having previously been denied parole seven times.
“I think the parole board recognized that Herman Bell satisfied all the criteria for parole; which is whether it’s probable that he would lead a crime-free life if released,” said Robert Boyle, Bell’s attorney.
The parole board’s decision has set off fierce reactions. A statement from NYC Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) president Patrick Lynch said that members were “disgusted, offended and extremely angry with this parole board’s decision,” using words like “domestic terrorist” to describe Bell. “Today, it is accepted that, absent a constitutionally viable death penalty, the appropriate sentence for anyone who intentionally murders a NYC police officer is life without parole,” Lynch wrote.
Monifa Bandele, a Brooklyn-based criminal justice advocate, strongly objects to that notion. “The parole board is not supposed to be a sentencing body,” she said. “I think it’s very significant that the parole board now seems to be following their own guidelines and rules. Rather than the nature of the crime, the board must consider whether a person is a risk, and whether they’ve done what is called ‘good time.’ This is very significant, not only for Herman, but also for other aging prisoners in New York state.”
The patrol board’s guidelines for granting parole includes institutional adjustment (which in itself includes program goals and accomplishments, academic and vocational achievements, therapy and interpersonal relationships), and availability of adequate release plans, including community resources.
In the case of Bell, the parole board determined that ”coupled with [his] age, length of prison stay, [Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions] indications of low/unlikely risk if released, [his] packet, [his] case/release plans, the record and [his] institutional adjustment” Bell’s “incarcerated debt has been paid to society.” The board further specified that they believed Bell could live a law-abiding life, that he “compiled a sturdy network of supporters,” had “a record of consistently solid programming over time,” and that Bell “repeatedly expressed your regret and remorse for your crimes, and asked for forgiveness.”
The board also mentioned a Feb 20 letter from one of slain officer Jones’ children, calling it “noteworthy.” “[Parole] would bring joy and peace as we have already forgiven Herman Bell publicly,” the parole board quoted the letter as stating.
However, Diane Piagentini, Joseph Piagentini’s widow, does not support Bell’s release. “The message being sent devalues the life of my brave husband who was taken from his two daughters and for whom there is no parole.” she wrote in a statement that was released in association with the PBA statement, describing Bell as “animalistic.” And on March 20, the New York Daily News published an interview with Jones’s siblings, who spoke against parole.
Boyle took issue with what he described as the media re-characterizing the issue as a debate between victims’ families. “That is also inflammatory and exploiting the grief felt by the families, for their own purposes,” he said.
Boyle also expressed concern for Bell’s safety, especially as, according to a March 15 article in the New York Post, the PBA sent their members a safety alert in which they were urged to remain vigilant in the event of Bell’s release. Boyle called the safety alert outrageous. “That’s basically putting out a hit on Herman Bell,” he said.
Boyle’s concern is not without cause. Bell sustained an attack at Great Meadow Correctional Facility on September 5, 2017 at the hands of multiple guards, leaving the elderly prisoner with two broken ribs and a concussion. The parole board referenced Bell’s comments about the incident, writing, “you reported as a result of being assaulted you initially experienced short-term memory loss and difficulty speaking and writing.”
There has been wide community support for Bell’s release. A recent CBS New York poll indicated that 86 percent of the 6,000 respondents agreed with the decision. Over 80 organizations signed a statement of support for the parole board’s decision. A letter of support from hundreds of artists and cultural workers is expected to be released on March 23. According to Boyle, Bell himself has declined to comment on his pending release, out of respect for the families of the victims.
In the concluding text of their decision, the parole board wrote: “This panel’s decision is premised in the redemptive and restorative values intrinsic to our criminal justice system.”
“Keeping Herman in prison [would] serve as nothing more than punishment and reeks of revenge,” says Bandele. ”It will not contribute to public safety. Actually, preventing Herman’s release would roll back a decade’s worth of parole reforms that work to modernize our criminal legal system by using evidence-based practices that promote public safety. Revenge poisons those efforts.”