By Jay Brodell
editor of A.M. Costa Rica
One of nearly 100 U.S. fugitives living in Cuba is Assata Shakur, who
was better known to me as JoAnne Chesimard.
She has been called a major league terrorist but also a revolutionary
fighter against imperialism.
Her case is relevant today because she long has been the subject of an
extradition request by U.S. officials, and Cuba may soon send her back
home to complete a murder sentence.
Ms. Shakur was a member of what was called the Black Liberation Army in
the early 1970s. She is a first-class intellect and perhaps the
originator of the "they shot me while my hands were up" defense.
Ms. Shakur and her associates certainly rank as terrorists. They threw
a hand grenade under a pursuing New York police patrol car and have
been named in a string of bank robberies.
Although she has condemned the United States, she says Cuba is a
courageous country. The women is a hero for many black activists and
their supporters. This is true even though she was a key figure in the
killing of a New Jersey state trooper early May 2, 1973, in a
confrontation on the New Jersey Turnpike.
I remember the case well. Trooper James Harper stopped a
Vermont-registered vehicle in the Turnpike's southbound lanes, and
Trooper Werner Foerster arrived to back up Harper. The time was about
45 minutes after midnight.
I was seated in a newspaper newsroom about five miles away when the
police radio alerted us to an incident on the Turnpike.
Harper, although wounded, managed to make his way to the Turnpike
administration building just a few hundred yards away to seek help. A
firefight had broken out. Trooper Foerster, a German immigrant,
was dead, we learned later. And the vehicle involved was headed south.
Serious wounds were inflicted on two of the the three persons in the
vehicle, and they had to pull over several miles down the highway. One
man, Zayd Malik Shakur, died. Ms. Shakur was wounded badly, and a third
man we identified later as Carl Squires became a fugitive for two days
in the New Jersey countryside.
My two dozen news staffers were intimately involved in the coverage for
weeks. We even exchanged letters with Squires after he was in custody.
The case ended up having all the ingredients that make headlines today.
The U.S. FBI was accused of illegal surveillance of Ms. Shakur
and racially motivated
This is the first of two books
searches for her. She
was portrayed as some kind of a victim of racial persecution and not a
The legal proceedings in Middlesex Country, New Jersey, ended up
costing nearly $1 million as one trial ended in a mistrial and jurors
from another county were called in for a second trial.
William Kunstley, the
flamboyant lawyer, was on the defense team, and
Ms. Shakur showed plenty of disrespect for the court. In fact, when a
judge ordered her and a codefendant to be isolated in an adjacent room,
she became pregnant.
Ms. Shakur argued that she did not fire any
weapons in the
confrontation because she, herself, was shot while holding her hands
up. Medical evidence says this is a possibility. Still participation in
a murder carries an equal sentence, and later testimony was that
Malik Shakur executed the critically injured trooper by putting two
bullets in his head from the man's service revolver.
Later three friends pulled guns in the visitor room of
Reformatory and broke her out. Eventually she ended up in Cuba where
Opinions of Ms. Shakur seem to follow racial
lines. She is seen as a
hero along with the likes of Harriet Tubman. A documentary has been
done on her life. She wrote two books. Various human rights groups call
her a political prisoner.
Undergraduates at the City University of New York
named a student center for her.
Meanwhile, the FBI and the State of New Jersey have
posted a $1 million reward. They would like to have her back.
As for Foerster, the state put his name on a
bridge. He left a wife and two children.