History and Case Background
On May 21, 1971, two New York City police officers were fatally shot. This shooting occurred within the context of two major national trends: the growth of black revolutionary groups such as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and, later, its armed wing, the Black Liberation Army; and at the same time, the FBI operation under Director J. Edgar Hoover, with the cooperation of the Nixon administration, to destroy the leaders and memberships of both mainstream civil rights and militant black organizations.
This counterintelligence operation, called COINTELPRO, targeted black leaders by infiltrating the Black Liberation Movement, framing members of the movement for crimes, and even murdering them, in order to get them off the streets and out of contact with the community.
The shooting of these two police officers also came immediately after the infamous trial of the "Panther 21," a case in New York against 21 members of the BPP charged with planning "terrorist" acts. After nearly a two year tria,l all 21 defendants were acquitted.
On May 26, 1971, only 5 days after the crime, FBI Director Hoover was called to the White House to a secret meeting with President Richard Nixon, John Erlichman, the Domestic Advisor to the President, as well as members of the Watergate plumbers. They discussed this case and established the FBI would solve the crime under the code name NEWKILL, or New York killings. It is believed that in this meeting, the FBI and White House conspired to frame Black Panthers for the killings.
Furthermore, on May 19, 1971, only three days before the shooting, two other NYPD officers were injured. Dhoruba bin Wahad (formerly Richard Moore), was convicted in that case and served 19 years in prison for attempted murder. At the time of his arrest, Dhoruba was a. ranking member of the Black Panther Party and a target of COINTELPRO. Eventually, in 1990, he was released due to a successful appeal based on information found in COINTELPRO documents, which detailed how evidence was manufactured and testimony perjured. Similar evidence has not been allowed as evidence in the case of the New York 3.
Three months after the killings, on August 28, 1971, Jalil Abdul Muntaqim (Anthony Bottom) and Albert Nuh Washington were arrested in San Francisco during an armed confrontation with police. Their arrests came only one week after the assassination of BPP Field Marshall George Jackson. They were later charged with the New York killings. Nearly two years later, Herman Bell was arrested in New Orleans. Also arrested and charged in the case were Gabriel and Francisco Torres, although the two brothers were acquitted due to lack of evidence.
The first trial, then against the New York 5 (including the Torres brothers), ended in a mistrial. In that trial, only one vote was cast to convict Nuh Washington. The Torres brothers were acquitted in the second trial. But at the end of a second trial, in 1975, the New York Three, Nuh, Jalil, and Herman, were convicted of first degree murder, weapons possession, and conspiracy.
The hung jury in the first trial was largely due to the jury's doubt that a fingerprint near the scene of the crime belonged to Herman Bell. In order to ensure that this piece of tampered evidence would uphold in the second trial, the FBI was brought in to back up the findings of the NYPD. What wasn't presented to the jury was that the FBI and the NYPD had different stories as to whether the fingerprint matched Bell or not. The defense argued that the print had actually been lifted from Jalil's San Francisco apartment by the FBI. This is only one example of how the NYPD and FBI worked together to ensure a conviction in the second trial.
All three members of the New York Three were specifically named in COINTELPRO documents as members of the black liberation movement who had to be "neutralized." These documents, and the media smear campaign enacted by the FBI and the White House, claimed that these community and human rights activists were "terrorists." This domestic program of political repression was revealed by a 1976 congressional committee, the Church Commission, to have utilized extra-legal methods to neutralize social justice movements, including surveillance, beatings, torture, harassment, instigating violent feuds between rival individuals and organizations, coercion and intimidation of witnesses, isolating and bad jacketing influential leaders, as well as outright murder.
In fact, a major reason that many BPP and BLA members were forced to go underground and arm themselves was the deadly FBI-instigated split in the party between factions led by Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton.
Despite the media perception that the BPP were "terrorists," the main activities conducted by the New York Three and other members of the BPP were running programs designed to serve the community, such as the Free Breakfast program for children; health care programs, such as sickle-cell anemia testing and lead poisoning prevention; legal and political education; and anti-drug activities.
The BPP helped tenants fight slumlords and demanded traffic lights and speed bumps on streets where it was unsafe for children to play. It is also true that the BPP were an armed group. The decision to arm BPP members stemmed from the need for a solution to the massive police violence that plagued the communities where the BPP operated. At the time, in communities like Oakland, CA, black youth were being blatantly murdered by police on a regular basis.
They patrolled the community, ensuring that the police followed proper search and arrest procedures. They studied the law and informed community members about their rights. The guns involved in the BPP were only for Self Defense. It was for these acts that they were targeted, not for illegal activity. Furthermore, the BPP and the BLA actively fought drug dealers in the community. They viewed both the police and the drug dealers as enemies of the community. They chose to address this problem "by any means necessary."
Clearly, the NY3 and other political prisoners are imprisoned not because of crimes they actually committed, but for their political activity and J. Edgar Hoover's racist and personal war against members of the black liberation and civil right's movement.
The New York Three continue to fight for their freedom and maintain their innocence. Herman and Jalil are now two of the longest held political prisoners in the US. Each member of the NY3 has served more than 43 years. On April 28, 2000, Albert Nuh Washington passed away after a long, painful battle with liver cancer. Jalil and Herman are currently serving their sentences.