ALBANY, N.Y. – A New York judge on Friday heard arguments but didn’t immediately rule on whether a former radical who fatally shot two New York City police officers in 1971 should be released on parole.
The state parole board last month approved the release of Herman Bell for next Wednesday but the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association filed a lawsuit on behalf of a widow of one of the slain officer to try to keep him in jail.
PBA lawyers argued Friday that the parole board should have considered Diane Piagentini’s victim impact statement, while lawyers for the state argued that the parole board did its job.
State Supreme Court Justice Richard Koweek said he would start reviewing Friday’s arguments on Monday. He said his temporary restraining order granted in the PBA’s lawsuit seeking to halt Bell’s release remains in effect, essentially keeping the 70-year-old Bell behind bars until the judge issues a decision.
Bell has served 44 years for his role in the fatal shootings of officers Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini at a Harlem housing development.
Bell and two other members of the Black Liberation Army, a violent offshoot of the Black Panther Party, were convicted of killing Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini after luring he officers to the housing development with a bogus 911 call. Authorities say both officers were shot multiple times, with Piagentini hit by more than 20 bullets.
During Bell’s eighth parole hearing in early March, the state parole board approved Bell’s release from Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Ulster County, determining “his debt has been paid to society.” Board members took into consideration his stated remorse for killing the officers and the fact he had earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees while in prison and counseled other inmates.
The officers’ union says Bell should be kept in prison. The lawsuit against the state contends parole board members failed to consider, as required under state law, the comments of the sentencing judge and prosecutors, who indicated Bell should never be released from prison. The board also didn’t consider the victim impact statement she submitted, her lawyers argued.
Parole board members can consider many factors, but “it doesn’t give them the right to act outside the law,” said Mitch Garber, Piagentini’s lawyer.
The lawsuit also seeks a new parole board to reconsider whether Bell is eligible for parole.
Joshua McMahon, the assistant attorney general handling the case for the state, argued that relatives of a crime victim have no standing when it comes to the parole process other than to submit impact statements.
Diane Piagentini and her two daughters sat in the front row of the courtroom along with leaders of the PBA of the City of New York.
One of Bell’s co-defendants has since died in prison while the other, Anthony Bottom, is serving 25 years to life at maximum-security Sullivan Correctional Facility in Sullivan County. Bottom, 66, is due for a parole hearing in June.