TUPAC'S GODMOTHER: ASSATA SHAKUR HAS A $1 MILLION BOUNTY ON HER HEAD
Assata Shakur (born July 16, 1947) under the name Joanne Deborah Byron Chesimard, is an African-American activist who was a member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army. In 1977 she was convicted of several felonies in relation to the 1973 slayings of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster and fellow activist Zayd Malik Shakur.
She escaped from prison in 1979 and has been living in Cuba with political asylum since 1984. Since May 2, 2005, she has been classified as a "domestic terrorist" by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has offered a $1 million reward for assistance in her capture.
She is also the non-biological godmother of hip hop artist Tupac Shakur, pictured below.
Shakur was born in New York City, New York on July 16, 1947, (or, according to the FBI, August 19, 1952) but spent most of her childhood in Wilmington, North Carolina until her family relocated to Queens when she was a teenager. She attended Borough of Manhattan Community College and City College of New York in the mid 1960s, where she was involved in many political activities. After graduation, Shakur became involved in the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. Shakur and others claim that she was targeted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation's COINTELPRO as a result of her involvement with these organizations.
Msgr. John Powis alleged that Shakur was involved in an armed robbery at his Our Lady of the Presentation church in Brownsville, Brooklyn on September 14, 1972 based on FBI photographs; Shakur was not charged with this robbery and the only person arrested for it was acquitted.
In 1972, Shakur was made the subject of a nationwide manhunt after the F.B.I. alleged that she was the "revolutionary mother hen" of a Black Liberation Army cell which had conducted a "series of cold-blooded murders of New York City police officers."
After her capture, however, Shakur was charged with none of the killings which had made her the subject of the manhunt. On May 2, 1973, Shakur, at that time a member of the Black Liberation Army and no longer a member of the Black Panther Party, was stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike by State Troopers James Harper and Werner Foerster, along with two Black Panthers: Zayd Malik Shakur (no relation) and Sundiata Acoli, for driving with a broken taillight. Accounts of the confrontation differ, but Zayd Shakur and Trooper Foerester were killed in the ensuing shootout, and Assata Shakur and Trooper Harper were injured.
Acoli then drove the car—which contained Assata, who was wounded, and Zayd, who was dead—several miles down the road, where Assata Shakur was apprehended. Acoli then exited the car and fled into the woods and was captured after a manhunt the following day.
Between 1973 and 1977, in New York and New Jersey, Shakur was indicted 10 times in 7 different criminal trials, including two bank robberies, the kidnapping of a Brooklyn heroin dealer, attempted murder of two Queens police officers steming from a January 23, 1973 failed ambush, and the murder of a New Jersey state trooper. Shakur's defense attorney's included Stanley Cohen,who died under mysterious circumstances early on in Ms. Shakur's last trial. Of these trials, three resulted in acquittals, one in a hung jury, and two in dismissals in one of her bank robbery trials, the jury determined that a widely-circulated F.B.I. photo allegedly showing her participating in the robbery was not her.
Judge Leon Gerofsky ordered a change of venue in 1973 to Morris County, New Jersey, saying "it is almost impossible to obtain a jury here comprised of people willing to accept the responsibility of impartiality so that defendants will be protected from transitory passion and prejudice. Shakur was originally slated to be tried together with Acoli, but the trials were separated due to her pregnancy, and her trial resulted in a mistrial in 1974.
By the time her 1977 trial started, Acoli had already been convicted of firing the bullets which killed Trooper Foerester. On March 25, 1977—back in Middlesex County, New Jersey—Shakur was convicted as an accomplice regarding the murders of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster and Zayd Shakur, possession of weapons, as well as assault and attempted murder of Trooper Harper. Under New Jersey law at the time, if a person's "mere presence" at a crime scene could be construed as "aiding and abetting" that crime, that person could be charged with the substantive crime. She was sentenced to life plus 33 years in prison. All of the jury members were white and five had personal ties to State Troopers. The judge did not allow evidence of alleged COINTELPRO involvement to be admitted during her trial and refused to investigate a burglary of her defense counsel's office which resulted in the disappearance of trial documents.
Sundiata Acoli, Assata Shakur, Trooper Harper, and a New Jersey Turnpike driver who saw part of the incident were the only surviving witnesses. Acoli did not testify or make any pre-trial statements. A driver traveling North on the turnpike testified that he had seen a State Trooper struggling with a Black man between a white vehicle and a State Trooper car, whose revolving lights illuminated the area. Shakur testified that Trooper Harper shot her after she raised her arms to comply with his demand, the second shot hitting her in the back as she was turning to avoid it, and that she climbed into the back seat of the Pontiac which Acoli drove five miles down the road and parked, and remained there until State Troopers dragged her onto the road.
Trooper Harper's three official reports state that after he stopped the Pontiac, he ordered Acoli to the back of the vehicle for Trooper Foerester—who had arrived on the scene—to examine his driver's license, and that after Acoli complied and as he was looking inside the vehicle to examine the registration, Trooper Foerester yelled and held up and ammunition clip, as Shakur simultaneously reached into her red pocketbook, pulled out a nine-millimeter weapon and fired at him.
Trooper Harper's reports then state that he ran to the rear of his car and shot at Assata Shakur who had exited the vehicle and was firing from a crouched position next to the vehicle In his Grand Jury testimony, Trooper Harper swore under oath that these reports were correct.
Under cross-examination at both Acoli and Shakur's trials, Trooper Harper admitted to having lied in these reports and in his Grand Jury testimony about Trooper Foerester yelling and showing him an ammunition clip, about seeing Shakur holding a pocketbook or a gun inside the vehicle, and about Shakur shooting at him from the car.
A key element of Shakur's defense was medical testimony meant to demonstrate that she was shot with her hands up and that she would have been subsequently unable to fire a weapon. A neurologist testified that the median nerve in Shakur's right arm was severed by the second bullet, making her unable to pull a trigger; a surgeon testified that it was "absolutely anatomically necessary" for Shakur's arms to have been in the air given her wounds and that Trooper Harper's claim that she was crouching was "totally anatomically impossible;" a pathologist testified that there was "no conceivable way" the first bullet could have hit Shakur's clavicle if her arm was down.
Neutron activation analysis administered after the shootout showed no gun powder residue on Shakur's fingers, which—her lawyers argued—proved she could not have shot a weapon; her fingerprints were not found on any weapon at the scene, according to forensic analysis performed at the Trenton, New Jersey crime lab and the F.B.I. crime labs in Washington, D.C..
After the Turnpike shootings, Shakur was imprisoned in New Jersey State Reception and Correction center in Yardville, Middlesex County, New Jersey and later moved to Rikers Island Correctional Institution for Women where she was kept in solitary confinement. Shakur's only daughter, Kakuya Shakur, was conceived during her trial and given birth to in prison. On April 8, 1978, Shakur was transferred to Alderson Federal Prison Camp in Alderson, West Virginia where she met Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebrón and Mary Alice, a Catholic nun, who introduced Shakur to the concept of liberation theology.
At Alderson, Shakur was housed in the Maximum Security Unit, which also contained several members of the Aryan Sisterhood as well as Sandra Good and Lynette Fromme, followers of Charles Manson. In 1978, after the Maximum Security Unit at Alderson was closed, Shakur was transferred to the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey.
On November 2, 1979 she escaped the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey, after members of the Black Liberation Army conducted an armed action. No one, including the guards, was injured during the prison break. Charged with assisting in her escape was her brother, Mutulu Shakur, and Silvia Baraldini. In part for his role in the event, Mutulu was named on July 23, 1982 as the 380th addition to the "FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives" list, where he remained for the next four years until his capture in 1986.
After her escape, Assata lived as a fugitive for the next several years. The F.B.I. circulated "wanted" posters throught the New York-New Jersey area; her supporters hung "Assata Shakur is weclome here" posters in response.
She fled to Cuba in 1984 where she was granted political asylum, saying she had never received a fair trial. In 1985 she was reunited with her daughter, Kakuya, who had previously been raised by Shakur's mother in New York. She published Assata: An Autobiography, which was written in Cuba, in 1987. Her autobiography does not give a detailed account of the events on the New Jersey Turnpike, except saying that the jury "Convicted a woman with her hands up!"
In 1997, Carl Williams, the superintendent of the New Jersey State Police wrote a letter to the Pope John Paul II asking him to raise the issue of Shakur's extradition during his talks with President Fidel Castro. During the pope's visit to Cuba in 1998, Shakur agreed to an interview with NBC journalist Ralph Penza.
On March 10, 1998—the 85th anniversary of the death of Harriet Tubman—New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman asked Attorney General Janet Reno to do whatever it takes to return Shakur from Cuba. Later in 1998, the U.S. media widely reported claims that the United States State Department had offered to lift the Cuban embargo in exchange for the return of ninety U.S. political exiles, including Shakur.
In 1998, the United States Congress passed a resolution asking Cuba for the "return" of Joanne Chesimard; House Concurrent Resolution 254 passed 371-0 in the House and by unanimous consent in the Senate. Many members of the Congressional Black Caucus later explained that they were against her extradition, but mistakenly voted for the bill which was placed on the accelerated suspension calendar, generally reserved for non-controversial legislation.
Representative Maxine Waters of California, who voted for the resolution, later explained her opposition, calling COINTELPRO "illegal, clandestine political persecution."
On May 2, 2005, the thirty-second anniversary of the Turnpike shootings, the F.B.I. classified her as a "domestic terrorist;" increasing the reward for assistance in her capture to $1 million, the largest reward placed on an individual in the history of New Jersey.
New Jersey State Police superintendent Rick Fuentes said "she is now 120 pounds of money."