Tuesday, April 21, 2009

New Jersey May Renew Effort to Extradite Assata Shakur

N.J. may renew effort to extradite fugitive Joanne Chesimard

Chris Megerian
NJ State House Bureau
April 21, 2009 20:11PM

Three decades after convicted cop killer Joanne Chesimard's escape from prison, New Jersey is making a renewed effort to extradite her from Cuba, Attorney General Anne Milgram said today.

Milgram said President Obama's plan to normalize relations with Cuba is an opportunity to push for the return of the state's most wanted fugitive, who was found guilty of killing a state trooper in 1973.

"It's critically important that we try and get Chesimard back," Milgram said, responding to a question from Assemblyman Joe Cryan (D-Union), during a budget committee hearing.

"Here, here," responded Cryan, an undersheriff in Union County.

David Wald, spokesman for the attorney general, said Milgram and State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes will write to Obama to request her extradition.

"If the president is trying to establish a different relationship, this is something he needs to talk to them about," Wald said.

Fuentes said the issue is still an emotional one for New Jersey troopers, who lost one of their own to Chesimard in 1973.

"With help from the FBI, we haven't let up the pressure on her return," he said. "We know she's in Cuba, and we have no intent of letting up that pressure now."

According to police, Chesimard was a well-known black nationalist linked to a number of robberies and assaults. In 1973, a gunfight broke out after two state troopers, Werner Foerster and James Harper, stopped her and two companions on the New Jersey Turnpike in Middlesex County. Foerster and one of Chesimard's companions, her brother-in-law, were killed. Harper was injured in the gun battle.

Chesimard was convicted of murder in 1977 and sentenced to life in prison. But two years later she escaped in dramatic fashion.

Three gunmen posing as visitors broke her out of what is now called the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton.

After hiding out for years, Chesimard resurfaced in Cuba in the mid-1980s. Since then, the now 61-year-old fugitive has been living under the protection of Fidel Castro and going by the name Assata Shakur. New Jersey has made numerous efforts to extradite her, including a $1 million bounty and an appeal to Pope John Paul II, who made a historic trip to Cuba in 1998.

Chesimard's surviving accomplice, Sundiata Acoli, born Clark Edward Squire, is still in a federal penitentiary in Pennsylvania. He was denied parole in 2004.

Castro has criticized the state's pursuit of Chesimard In 2005, he called the charges against her "an infamous lie." Others have described her a revolutionary and an activist.

Last week, state Sen. Sean Kean (R-Monmouth) sent a letter to Pres. Barack Obama asking him to delay normalizing relations with Cuba until they agree to the extradition.

An e-mail request for comment to an organization of Chesimard supporters, Assata Shakur Speaks, was not returned last night.

State Troopers Fraternal Association President David Jones said there's no question that Chesimard shot Foerster in the back of the head in cold blood.

"She's your classic urban terrorist, and she should be in jail," he said. "Anybody who tells you different is a liar."

Jones said extraditing America's most wanted from Cuba should be a priority for the Obama administration.

"Long before we normalize relationships with this island that's 90 miles from our shores, we have to ensure the return of these convicted criminals," he said.

Statehouse Bureau reporter John Reitmeyer contributed to this report.

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