Since they became eligible for parole a decade ago, two aging ex-members of a militant black power group serving 25-years-to-life sentences for the 1971 killings of two New York City police officers have been routinely rejected for release after displaying little or no remorse.
Starting this week, Herman Bell and Anthony Bottom will again go before the state Parole Board to ask for freedom. But this time, it will be after admitting for the first time that they were involved in the execution-style slayings.
The admissions have reignited a debate over whether the men, who still call themselves political prisoners, have become rehabilitated after four decades in prison or are simply more willing to game the system.
"As long as they keep admitting they're political prisoners, then they aren't taking responsibility for their actions," said Diane Piagentini, the widow of one of the slain officers, Joseph Piagentini, who still lives in the same Deer Park home she bought with him before he was killed at 28. "They should never be paroled."
The case dates to the late 1960s and early '70s, when a violent offshoot of the Black Panthers called the Black Liberation Army sanctioned symbolic killings of police officers regardless of their race in New York and California and robbed banks to finance its activities, authorities have said. Declassified documents show the FBI then initiated a covert campaign to infiltrate and disrupt the BLA and other violent radical movements.
BLA members Bell, Bottom and an accomplice, who died in prison in 2000, called themselves the "New York 3." They denied killing the officers and insisted they'd been framed during their trial and after their convictions in 1975. Five years ago, they accepted plea deals and served probation sentences for their roles in the killing of a police sergeant shot inside a San Francisco station house.
In their 2012 appearances before parole officials, both men admitted their roles in killing Piagentini and Officer Waverly Jones, 33. The officers were shot multiple times after they'd responded to a report of a domestic dispute at a Harlem housing complex on May 21, 1971. Prosecutors said it was a trap set by Bell and Bottom.
"I began to see things in a way that I wanted to come clean," Bell said in 2012, according to a transcript. "I wanted to accept that fact that I committed this offense, I wanted to show remorse, but I didn't really know how to express that to the Board."