My visit with Jalil Muntaqim in Attica
The release of Betty Medsgers book The Burglary this winter once again drew attention to the conspiracies of COINTELPRO, a program devised by J. Edgar Hoovers FBI that sought to discredit and destabilize minority empowerment and self-defense groups like the NAACP, Black Panthers
and American Indian Movementsometimes to the point of assassinating members of their leadership.
The false evidence and prosecutorial misconduct used to convict high profile COINTELPRO prisoners such as Leonard Peltier is a matter of public record. But J. Edgar Hoovers FBI also framed dozens of lesser known individuals such as Attica inmate Jalil Muntaqim (formerly Anthony Bottom) who, like Peltier, are still in jail decades after the Church Committee held hearings in 1975 exposing this misconduct.
I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Muntaqim on April 9, 2014 at Attica State Prison. The problem with the Church Committee hearings, he told me, was that they never proposed a remedy for the activists imprisoned by the unethical conduct of the law enforcement officers during the COINTELPRO years.
Among the irregularities in his own prosecution for the murder of two police officers in 1971 included a colleague tortured with a cattle prod and needles in his testicles to get him to testify against Muntaqim and Herman Bell both of whom were convicted of the killings. When he told the judge he was testifying only because of torture, the judge informed the prosecutor that the witness had revealed this information to him, but did not share the information with the defense. Muntaqim also knows that tapes exist of Hoover, Nixon, H.R. Haldemann, John Ehrlichman, and Mark Felt (of Watergates Deep Throat fame) deciding to solve the shootings of the police officers (under the code name NewKill) by setting up Muntaqim and his codefendants, but his lawyer has not been granted access to those tapes.
During his trial, ballistics expert George Simmons matched a gun that Muntaqim had carried in California to the bullet that killed the police officers and testified that he was the only person who had examined this ballistics evidence. Years later, Muntaqims defense team found out that an FBI ballistics expert had examined the gun and the bullet and determined they were not a match. This information was also withheld from the defense. In the 1980s, three months after Muntaqims lawyer filed a petition for a new trial based on this new evidence, someone removed the gun and the ballistics report from the locker in New York where they had been stored. The parole board, largely made up of ex-law enforcement personnel, has denied Jalil Muntaqim parole seven times.
The first six times, they did so because he did not express remorse (this stipulation is a glitch in the system for all who take plea bargains to avoid the hazards or costs of a trial or prisoners who are wrongly convicted: they must express remorse for crimes they did not commit.) For the seventh time, because his eighty-year-old mother wants so much for the whole family to sit down for a meal together before she dies, he decided to say, Okay, I did it, and express remorse. The parole board then denied him parole because he had lied about committing the crime the previous six times.
Jalil Muntaqim has another parole hearing coming up in June. He has 750 letters testifying to his good character and his rehabilitation. Included among those is a letter from the family of one of the
slain police officers who wrote of Muntaqim and Herman Bell, If they did it, we forgive them. But we hae serious concerns about whether they are the ones. Muntaqim will argue the precedent set by Silman v. Travis that if remorse and rehabilitation are the only relevant factors for a parole board to make decision regarding his release, the members of the board cannot make up reasons to keep him in jail.
Aside from wanting to grant his mothers wish, he also thinks he could do more on the outside to keep young people out of jail. Im wasted here, he told me. I feel like Im that Dutch boy with all ten fingers and toes in the dike.
From a justice perspective, however, Mr. Muntaqims plans for the future are beside the point. The FBIs COINTELPRO program was a stain on our constitution and disreputable era in our law enforcement history. The people it sent to prison should be set free.
Kathleen Kern, from Rochester, NY has worked for the human rights organization Christian Peacemaker Teams since 1993, serving on assignmentsand advocating for political prisonersin Haiti,Israel,Palestine, Mexico,Colombia, Iraqi Kurdistan, the U.S. and Canada.