By Alex Emslie
A 66-year-old man convicted of killing three police officers in 1971 — two in New York City, one in San Francisco — has another chance at freedom.
Herman Bell went before a New York parole board last week, the sixth time the former Black Panther Party member has done so, seeking an end to a 25-year-to-life sentence after four decades behind bars. A board spokeswoman said a decision will come on Monday.
The case of Herman Bell is stirring debate about a recent history of race and violence in the Bay Area, and how society should heal those wounds.
Bell and Anthony Bottom were both convicted of murder in 1975 for shooting New York police Patrolmen Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini to death. In addition, Bell took a plea deal of manslaughter in 2009 for the 1971 killing of San Francisco police Sgt. John Young.
It’d be an insult to every police officer in the country.
— SFPD officer Gary Delagnes
Bottom pleaded no contest to a conspiracy charge in the Young case that named both men part of the “San Francisco Eight.”
Their parole hearings – Bottom’s is coming this summer – are raising questions about the power of parole boards to effectively lengthen prison sentences. Bell has an exemplary record in prison. He earned a master’s degree behind bars and started a program to teach urban and rural communities to grow their own organic produce.
“He’s articulate, he’s intelligent, he’s compassionate,” said Stuart Hanlon, Bell’s San Francisco attorney. “He’s clearly not the person who in the 1970s was a member of the black underground and the Black Panther Party. He’s changed. And so how do you judge him?”
Bell and Bottom recently admitted to ambushing the New York patrolmen, Jones and Piagentini, as they responded to a fake 911 call.
Jones was shot in the back of the head and died instantly. Piagentini was shot more than a dozen times and died on his way to the hospital.
San Francisco police say Bell and Bottom moved to the Bay Area after the New York ambush. Police suspected the men and six others of setting off a bomb at Stonestown Mall to create a distraction, then fatally shooting Young with a shotgun inside Ingleside Station. A civilian employee was also seriously wounded. Thus, the “San Francisco Eight” moniker.
Manslaughter in San Francisco
The fact that the men are even eligible for parole is a bitter pill for San Francisco police. They know Bell for his association with a different group, the Black Liberation Army, which carried out militant attacks on police officers, bombings and armed robberies throughout the ’70s.
If Bell is paroled, “it’d be an insult to every police officer in the country,” retired SFPD officer and former San Francisco Police Officers Association President Gary Delagnes said. “These are people that put their butt out there for you, and when one of them is murdered, it better be taken seriously.”
The San Francisco charges against the eight suspects were dropped in the ’70s after the confessions that built the case were found to be the result of torture. Prosecutors brought Bell and Bottom back to San Francisco in 2007 with newly discovered forensic evidence, but ended up giving the two their plea deals, with no additional jail time beyond what they’d already served.
Hanlon said Young’s murder was a “pointless, outrageous act.”
“But that doesn’t mean anybody charged with it, with the Panthers, is guilty, and that was the problem we were facing,” he said. “I was not convinced by the evidence, not even close to it. The other lawyers certainly weren’t, and I don’t think the government was because the prosecutors dumped six of the eight people and got voluntary manslaughters for probation on the two who were already doing life sentences.”
Delagnes said the plea deal was a mistake.
“Because of the manslaughter plea, they’re now openly seeking parole in New York, which is a shame.”
Parole board’s authority
Hanlon said he doesn’t necessarily expect Bell to get paroled, but he has some hope because of recent criticism that the New York Parole Board too often denies release based solely on the seriousness of the crime. He said Bell’s sentence of 25 years to life contemplates parole after the 2½-decade prison term, and Bell has served 15 more years than that.
“The parole board, acting at the request of the police, is turning it into a life sentence without parole, and that’s not right,” he said. “The law is on his side.”
The San Francisco police suspect Bell and Bottom of many other crimes in the city, including the 1970 Park Police Station bombing that killed SFPD Sgt. Brian McDonnell.
“It doesn’t matter whether this happened 30, 40 or 50 years ago,” Delagnes said. “These were vicious killers and they should never be on the streets again.”
Victims’ families disagree
The widow of Piagentini testified against Bell’s release at his parole hearing.
“They have denied our two daughters a loving father, our two grandchildren have been denied the love and warmth of their granddad, and I have been denied a husband for our entire lives,” Diane Piagentini said, according to the New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “There is no parole for the wonderful man they killed, and there should be no parole for these cold-blooded murderers.”
Others, including Jones’ son, believe letting Bell out of prison could help society heal from the violence and racism in the ’60s and ’70s.
Waverly Jones Jr. wrote a letter to the New York Parole Board, saying that keeping Bell in prison would not ease the pain of his family.
“By releasing them through recognizing the good work of Mr. Bell and Mr. Bottom have done while incarcerated, by recognizing that they have done decades in prison and are different people than they were 35 years ago, you can bring some peace to our family,” he wrote in 2009.
Update: Tuesday, Feb. 25: A New York man convicted of killing three police officers in 1971, including one in San Francisco, has been denied parole.
A three-member New York state parole panel rejected the application from Herman Bell, 66, who was convicted of murder in the killing of New York Police Department Officers Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones and pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the killing of San Francisco Police Sgt. John Young.
You chose … a life of extreme violence against those charged with protecting society. Your merciless actions destroyed families.
— Parole panel ruling
Bell was making his sixth attempt at parole, and cited a wide variety of factors to persuade the board he was ready for release. Bell has earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in prison, has counseled homeless children by mail, and has enjoyed support from some public officials and even from Jones’s family.
But the panel decided in a ruling released today that despite Bell’s attempts at rehabilitation, there is a reasonable probability he would again violate that law and his release “is incompatible with the welfare of society.”
The panel’s decision was critical of Bell’s statements at a parole hearing last week:
Your four-page statement, as well as a significant part of your presentation, focuses on a self-serving explanation of the tumultuous era in which you grew up; it was devoid of any true acceptance of responsibility for your extremely violent and repeated criminal actions, which included acting in concert in armed robbery and the killing of a San Francisco police sergeant [redacted]. Despite having educational opportunities and a supportive family, you chose instead a life of extreme violence against those charged with protecting society. Your merciless actions destroyed families. And while the assassination of Martin Luther King continues to be a national tragedy, you exploited it as an excuse to choose a life of extreme violence and murder.
Bell will be eligible for parole again in two years.