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June 11, 2018

When, if Ever, Should ‘Cop-Killers’ Get Parole?

Two men convicted of killing New York City police officers are up for parole two months after another was freed after four decades

By Zolan Kanno-Youngs

Diane Piagentini, shown in 2004, with a photo of her husband, Officer Joseph Piagentini. One of the men convicted in his 1971 murder has a parole hearing scheduled for this week. PHOTO: DIANE BONDAREFF/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Two men convicted of killing New York City police officers are scheduled this month to appear before a parole board that could free them, renewing a debate over when, and whether, parole should be granted to so-called cop-killers.

In April, Herman Bell, 70 years old, was released on parole after spending four decades in prison for the murder of two police officers, Joseph Piagentini, 28, and Waverly Jones, 33. The move prompted a public backlash, including opinion articles and social-media campaigns waged by the city’s largest police union, the New York Police Department and elected officials.

Anthony Bottom, 66, convicted with Mr. Bell in the 1971 Harlem murder of those officers, is scheduled to make his case for parole to the board this week, according to a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. The Black Liberation Army, an offshoot of the Black Panther Party, claimed responsibility for the killings.

Eddie Matos, 50, convicted in 1990 of murder for pushing Officer Anthony Dwyer, 23, down an air shaft in Times Square after a burglary, is slated for a parole hearing later in the month.

The parole board is now required to use computer software, called Compas, to gauge the danger an inmate would pose to society if released. In 2017, Gov. Andrew Cuomo required the board to explain to a felon the reasons for its decision if it went against the findings of that software. In addition to the crime committed, the board considers a felon’s level of remorse and behavior in prison, and statements made by victims or their families.

In the wake of Mr. Bell’s release, police officials say the parole board isn’t putting enough emphasis on the severity of the crime when deciding whether to release an inmate.

“Especially in the case of murder and murder of a police officer,” said Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “That’s the type of evil you don’t put aside.”

Mr. Lynch said he is “extremely worried” that Mr. Bottom and Mr. Matos will be released.

Inmate advocates say the efforts to keep an inmate in prison indefinitely send a message that some people are incapable of rehabilitation. This also runs counter to a national movement to lower the incarceration rate.

Those behind the push to curtail the use of parole for people who have killed police officers are effectively encouraging parole boards to ignore the law, said Steven Zeidman, a professor at CUNY law and board member of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York. Mr. Zeidman called such a position “a dangerous [one] to take,” for law enforcement, which is required to uphold the law.

Sentencing laws have changed since Messrs. Matos and Bottoms were convicted. The most serious penalty for the murder of a police officer used to be 25 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole. That changed in 2005 when the state passed a law allowing judges to issue a life sentence without parole.

Mr. Lynch said Messrs. Matos and Bottoms “won the parole lottery by chance.”

In a statement, Mr. Bottom, who now goes by Jalil Muntaqim, said in the 47 years he has been in prison, he has done “everything necessary, required, and beyond to be granted release on parole.”

“But the Board continues to deny me based on the nature of the crime,” he said. “If not for the PBA lobbying the Board of Parole to disregard the law by denying me parole, I would have been released a long time ago. What else can I do?”

An attorney for Mr. Matos couldn’t be reached for comment.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat who campaigned on police reform, and Commissioner James O’Neill said this month they believe both Mr. Matos and Mr. Bottom should serve their full life sentences. “That crime was an outright assassination,” Mr. O’Neill said of Mr. Bottom’s case.

Officers Piagentini and Jones were ambushed and shot multiple times by Messrs. Bell and Bottom as they returned to their patrol car after answering a 911 call.

Before Mr. Bell was released, the NYPD issued statements through Twitter saying Mr. Bell wasn’t remorseful. Mr. Lynch stood with the families of the dead officers, sharply criticizing the board.

The widow of Officer Piagentini said someone who kills an officer isn’t deserving of redemption. “This is a crime of all crimes,” said Diane Piagentini.

Edward Dwyer, the father of Officer Dwyer, said his killer, Mr. Matos, shouldn’t be freed. “An eye for an eye,” he said.

Robert Boyle, Mr. Bell’s attorney, said his 70-year-old client satisfied the criteria for his release and took responsibility for the crime on his eighth and final appearance before the board.

“Everyone is entitled to fair consideration when they go before the parole board,” Mr. Boyle said.

Barbara Hanson-Treen, who served on the parole board from 1984 to 1996, agrees. She said the backlash after Mr. Bell’s release threatens the independence of the board and its process.

Ms. Hanson-Treen understands the pressure of considering someone a convicted cop-killer for parole. She said she oversaw the hearing for Shavod Jones, who shot and paralyzed NYPD Officer Steven McDonald in 1986.

Even though Officer McDonald, who died last year, publicly forgave Mr. Jones, Ms. Hanson-Treen denied him parole, saying he would continue to benefit from the programming in prison.

“It could’ve been Mrs. Smith or the milkman. It wasn’t because of the value of the victim,” she said. “He was not ready to come out.”