Garrett, Scott

Briefing Members on Cop Killer Joanne Chesimard

Washington, Nov 23 -

On Wednesday, November 18, 2009, I had the opportunity to give a briefing to Members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs regarding the ongoing threat of the Cuban regime to US interests and security. I was joined by New Jersey State Police Superintendent Colonel Joseph R. Fuentes, who has been one of the leading figures in the continued efforts to secure the return of convicted cop killer Joanne Chesimard from Cuba. 

In recent months, President Obama decided to lift travel and remittance restrictions to Cuba and he has also signaled a desire to further engage Raúl Castro and work toward normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba.  Normalization cannot come without concessions from the Cuban regime.  

One example is that Cuba cannot continue to support and harbor fugitives. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has estimated that there are at least 77 American fugitives living in Cuba. Joanne Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur, the aunt of slain rapper Tupac Shakur, is an example of criminals being harbored in the country.  Chesimard is currently one of the Top Ten “Featured Fugitives” on the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ Domestic Terrorism List. Chesimard was a member of the Black Liberation Army on May 2, 1973, when she and two accomplices were stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike for a motor vehicle violation.  She and two accomplices opened fire on two New Jersey State police troopers.   One trooper was wounded and another, New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster was shot and killed execution style at point-blank range. 

Chesimard was convicted in 1977.  Two years into her sentence, Chesimard escaped from prison and fled to Cuba where she was granted political asylum by Fidel Castro.  On September 14, 1998, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed H.Con.Res. 254, a resolution calling on the Government of Cuba to “extradite to the United States convicted felon Joanne Chesimard and all other individuals who have fled the United States to avoid prosecution or confinement for criminal offenses and who are currently living freely in Cuba.” The Senate passed H.Con.Res. 254 on October 21, 1998 by Unanimous Consent. Over a decade later, Ms. Chesimard remains a fugitive and Cuban leaders refuse to cooperate with U.S. officials who seek her extradition.

I believe that the extradition of convicted felons and cop killers should be one of the prerequisites for achieving normal diplomatic relations with Cuba.  In June, I sent a letter to President Obama urging him to make Chesimard’s extradition a top priority while he engages the Cuban government. Twenty-four of my colleagues in the House of Representatives—Republican and Democrat alike—joined me in signing the letter. In addition, we wrote that we would welcome an opportunity to accompany President Obama and a contingent of New Jersey State Troopers on a future visit to Cuba. 

By aiding a convicted murderer, Cuba has insulted not only the state of New Jersey, but also the U.S. legal system and U.S. law enforcement officers.

In addition to my June letter, my colleague Patrick Murphy and I called for the extradition of cop killers and other convicted felons from Cuba, in the form of an amendment to H.R. 3081, the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act.

This amendment would have prohibited funds from being used to enter into diplomatic relations with Cuba if Cuba refuses to extradite U.S. citizens who have been convicted of killing a law enforcement officer or have been convicted of a criminal offense in the United States for which the maximum penalty is life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. 

The House Rules Committee did not allow the amendment to come to the floor for debate and a vote.

I commend President Obama’s intention to renew and repair relations with this vibrant culture just ninety miles off our southern shores.  Trade and diplomatic relations would be beneficial to both the United States and Cuba, and an increased U.S. influence could discourage Cuba from further aligning itself with antagonistic regional powers, such as Venezuela.

Normalization cannot come without concessions from the Cuban regime.  Namely, we must demand that Cuba recognize the legitimacy of our criminal justice system by returning known fugitives such as Joanne Chesimard.  Moreover, Cuba must begin the process of freeing political prisoners, encouraging democratic reform, and honoring international law.  I recognize that change will not come over night, but change must begin before we extend our hand.