justice

Deadlocked Parole Panels Leave Prisoners in Limbo

Jalil Muntaqim speaks in prison in 2018.
Jalil Muntaqim speaks in prison in 2018. Photo: Screenshot from Messiah Rhodes Documentary

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When Jalil Muntaqim made his case for the 11th time before a state prison parole board last month, it was all for naught.

Muntaqim’s plea was heard by a two-person parole panel, instead of the usual three — and the duo ended up unable to agree on the fate of the man convicted of killing two police officers nearly 50 years ago.

The “panel failed to reach a majority,” the parole board reported.

The board notified the 67-year-old former Black Panther Party member — formerly known as Anthony Bottom — that he would get another shot at making his case on Oct. 20, according to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

State officials have repeatedly vowed to end the use of two-person parole panels, according to multiple advocates. But the advocates conservatively estimate that several hundred similar split decisions have been issued over the past five years — forcing costly and emotionally draining do-overs with new panels weeks later.

“A two-person board is unconscionable,” said Steve Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the CUNY School of Law. “The idea that we can’t have three-person boards in every situation is an affront to due process and basic decency.”

State officials say they have no idea how many times two-member panels have deadlocked over the past five years.

The indecisive outcomes are officially recorded as “postponements.” But that term also includes other possibilities, such as a prisoner backing out of a hearing due to a pending appeal or because of an illness.

Approximately 10% to 15% of the roughly 1,000 cases scheduled before parole boards are postponed each month, according to state prison records.

In some cases, people have been forced to make their cases before two-person panels multiple times before ever going before a three-person panel, according to a 2018 report by Release Aging People in Prison and the Parole Preparation Project.

“To have two commissioners is fundamentally unfair for people laying their lives on the line,” said David George, associate director of Release Aging People in Prison.

A state prison spokesperson, Rachel Connors, said that one of the commissioners in the Bottom case had a personal matter to handle.

Missing Commissioners

Chronic staffing shortages have increased the odds that a prisoner will face a two-person panel.

While state law permits up to 19 parole commissioners, last year the state employed just 12. Those dozen commissioners dealt with about 12,000 cases, state prison records show.

Following criticism from advocates, the Cuomo administration this year appointed five new commissioners. One commissioner left, making the current total 16.

Those overloaded commissioners rarely enter prisons for hearings, the Daily News reported in January. Instead, they must travel the state to hear cases via video link in conference rooms located near prisons — a potential deterrent to taking the $106,000-a-year job.

Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch
Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The Police Benevolent Association — which is strenuously opposed to Muntaqim’s release — is dumbfounded by two-person panels.

PBA President Pat Lynch has urged the Cuomo administration to better staff the parole unit so that commissioners have more time to listen to victims and research the severity of the crimes committed in certain cases.

The Case for ‘No’

Muntaqim’s case is one of the most high-profile pending parole hearings.

He has spent four decades in prison for the murders of city Police Officers Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones. The cops were ambushed outside the Colonial Park Houses as they responded to a bogus call of someone sick near the Harlem housing development on May 21, 1971.

NYPD Officers Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones were fatally shot in the line of duty in 1971. A two-member parole panel recently deadlocked on the fate of Jalil Muntaqim, aka Anthony Bottom, who was among those convicted of killing the cops.
NYPD Officers Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones were fatally shot in the line of duty in 1971. A two-member parole panel recently deadlocked on the fate of Jalil Muntaqim, aka Anthony Bottom, who was among those convicted of killing the cops. Photo: NYPD

The Black Liberation Army, a spin-off of the Black Panther Party, bragged about killing cops and took credit for the murders.

Three men were convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for the crime. One of those men, Herman Bell, was granted parole in March 2018. The decision was criticized by Mayor Bill de Blasio, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Diane Piagentini, widow of Joseph Piagentini.

Another defendant, Albert “Nuh” Washington, died in prison in 2000.

In August, Diane Piagentini joined the police union in urging the parole board to deny Muntaqim’s release.

“The absence and loss of my husband, Joe, can’t be quantified. There are just no words to describe the pain and void felt continually, to this very day, among our family because he is not here,” she said.

Muntaqim’s lawyer, Nora Carroll, declined to comment.

She has previously noted that he has earned college degrees and served as a teacher and role model for others behind bars.

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