When President Trump announces changes to U.S. policy on Cuba on Friday, officials in New Jersey are hoping the president will call specifically for the return of fugitive cop-killer Joanne Chesimard.
“We have to track her down,” said Republican state Sen. Joe Pennacchio of Montville. “We owe that, to watch the backs of the people who protect us.”
The case of the former Black Panther, in hiding for more than three decades, didn’t receive attention from President Obama when he restored diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015. Some observers expect Mr. Trump to play hardball with the Cuban government with regard to fugitives.
Senior White House officials said Thursday that Mr. Trump’s new policy will “reiterate” the importance of Cuba returning U.S. fugitives, and that he will direct Attorney General Jeff Sessions to write a report on fugitives in Cuba.
Mr. Trump is traveling to Miami on Friday for his announcement, in which White House officials said he will fulfill a campaign pledge to follow a harder line against Havana over human rights.
The new policy announcement will include restrictions on travel to Cuba and a crackdown on financial transactions that benefit the communist government’s military regime.
Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Daz-Balart, both Cuban-American Republicans from Florida, have been working with the administration on a tougher approach to trade rules that were loosened under Mr. Obama.
One of the longest-running disputes between the U.S. and Cuba is the issue of fugitives. Mr. Obama didn’t take a tough public stance about the approximately 70 U.S. fugitives hiding in Cuba, although his aides said at the time that the U.S. raised the issue with Havana repeatedly behind the scenes.
Chesimard, who will turn 70 next month, is undoubtedly the most notorious of the U.S. fugitives in Cuba. Also known as Assata Shakur and at least 20 other aliases, she is on the FBI’s most-wanted list of international terrorists.
She fled to Cuba in 1984 after escaping a New Jersey prison where she had been serving a life sentence for the murder of a state trooper, Werner Foerster.
“I can speak for all law enforcement in New Jersey, and probably throughout the country,” said Hunterdon County, N.J., Prosecutor Anthony Kearns. “We are all with a collective voice calling for her return. Joanne Chesimard was found guilty by a jury of her peers, she was convicted of murdering a New Jersey state trooper, she’s a fugitive and she needs to be returned to the state of New Jersey to fulfill her life sentence so that justice can be done. Whatever President Trump can do to effectuate that, we would certainly support.”
There’s some hope that the case might get more attention in the new administration, in part because Mr. Trump is taking a more firm law-and-order stance than did Mr. Obama. Also, the White House political director is Bill Stepien, a former top aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“Certainly the governor also has picked up the mantle of Joanne Chesimard,” said Mr. Pennacchio, an assistant Republican leader. “He has publicly stated that the letter of the law should be followed. She’s got to serve her sentence. Her walking around the streets of Havana or wherever she was for 40 years, it’s just not right.”
Trooper Foerster has a tribute on the Officer Down Memorial Page, where people still pay their respects with comments from time to time.
“To the family, friends and colleagues of Trooper Foerster, please know that a day does not go by where this brave trooper is not thought of for his bravery and sacrifice,” a Delaware state police official wrote in 2007. “Trooper Foerster is part of God’s elite police force watching over his law enforcement brethren from above and one day we will meet in a better place.”
The 34-year-old father of two had been a New Jersey state trooper for nearly three years when he provided backup during a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike on May 2, 1973. In the stopped car were three members of the Black Liberation Army, including Chesimard.
During a struggle with troopers, the suspects shot both officers. Chesimard and an accomplice were able to grab Trooper Foerster’s service revolver, and shot the trooper in the head with his own firearm as he lay wounded on the ground.
Chesimard was captured a short distance away, and convicted by a jury. But outside accomplices helped her escape from a state prison in 1979. She spent several years shuttling between safe houses in the U.S. before making it to Cuba.
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