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 searches for her. She was portrayed as some kind of a victim of racial persecution and not a cop killer.
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 Zayd 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 the Clinton Reformatory and broke her out. Eventually she ended up in Cuba where she remains.
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.