On May 2, 1973, around 12:45 a.m., Assata Shakur (born JoAnne Deborah Bryon), the godmother and step-aunt of slain rap star Tupac Shakur, along with Zayd Malik Shakur (born James F. Costan) and Sundiata Acoli (born Clark Squire), were stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike in East Brunswick by State Trooper James Harper for driving with a broken tail light and, according to Col. David B. Kelly of the New Jersey State Police, the vehicle was also “slightly” exceeding the speed limit. After calling the dispatcher and reporting his plans to stop the vehicle he had been following, Harper can later be heard to say: “Hold on—two black males, one female.” The stop occurred 200 yards south of what was then the Turnpike Authority administration building at exit 9, the headquarters of Troop D. Trooper Werner Foerster arrived as backup a few minutes later in a second patrol vehicle (Car 820).
Zayd Shakur was driving the two-door vehicle, Assata Shakur (not related) was seated in the right front seat, and Sundiata Acoli was in the right rear seat. Trooper Harper asked the driver for his identification and vehicle registration, noticed a discrepancy, asked him to get out of the car, and began to question him at the rear of the vehicle. It was at this point, with the questioning of Zayd Shakur, that a confrontation occurred. In the ensuing shootout, Trooper Foerster was killed, shot four times, twice by a .38 caliber semiautomatic pistol and twice in the head with his own gun, execution style. Zayd Shakur was also killed, and Assata Shakur and Trooper Harper were wounded.
This wasn’t the first time Assata Shakur had been in trouble with the law, however. As a member of the Black Liberation Army, Assata began working with the “railroad” stations, a BLA underground support network that located the basic necessities for people and helped them get to where they wanted to go. It was Assata’s belief that organizing small, armed, underground “strike teams” was the best way to continue resistance.
On April 6, 1971, Assata Shakur was shot in the stomach during a struggle with a guest at the Statler Hilton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan and taken to the hospital in fair condition. Once there, she was arrested and booked on charges of attempted robbery, felonious assault, reckless endangerment, and possession of a deadly weapon. Even though Assata refused to fully disclose the circumstances, a former Black Liberation Army member in New York said the incident stemmed from the BLA’s attempts to intimidate and steal money from drug dealers. Assata confirmed that there was a drug connection, but would not elaborate. When she was released on bail, she is alleged to have said that she was glad she had been shot since now that she knew what that was like, she was no longer afraid to be shot again.
That summer, on August 23, 1971, Assata was sought for questioning in a bank robbery in Queens. A few months later, she was identified along with Andrew Jackson, the man she was living with at the time in Atlanta, Georgia, from FBI photographs as a suspect in a hand grenade attack that destroyed a police car and slightly injured two patrolmen in Maspeth, Queens. Orders were issued to apprehend her.
In 1972 Assata was wanted for questioning regarding a police officer being wounded while attempting to serve a traffic summons in Brooklyn, and again later when Msgr. John Powis alleged that she was involved in an armed robbery at his Our Lady of the Presentation Church in Brownsville, Brooklyn, based on FBI photographs. Msgr. Powis later would recount: “I look up and they have three .45 automatics pointed at me.” He was ordered to open the church safe with its $1,800 in bingo money. “Twice I couldn’t open it. One of them says, ‘We usually just blow the heads off white men.’” The safe finally complied. Powis was gagged, hooded, and locked in a bathroom. When the police arrived, they showed him pictures of likely suspects. He recognized one of the robbers. It was Black Liberation Army leader JoAnne Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur. “I didn’t know her, but I had heard that a few weeks before she and others had robbed and killed a white real estate broker on Howard Avenue. I guess I was lucky.”
By now, the media had labeled Assata Shakur the “soul” of the Black Liberation Army, even claiming she was the de facto leader of the BLA following the arrest of co-founder Dhoruba al-Mujahid bin Wahad (born Richard Earl Moore).
In the series of New York and New Jersey trials that began in 1973, Evelyn Williams, Assata’s aunt, defended her successfully on a number of charges, claiming the charges were trumped up for the intention of defusing the political threat posed by the BLA. However, Assata didn’t make it easy for her aunt/attorney. Outside of court, she complained that Williams wasn’t doing enough or wasn’t doing it quickly enough, and ignoring Assata’s wishes and demands. Her complaints continued during the trials as well as Assata repeatedly disrupted court proceedings, yelling profanities and threats, spitting, refusing to stand when the judge entered the courtroom, and performing other acts of disrespect toward the court. One judge threatened to have her bound and gagged, and ordered the case to proceed without her being present.
On December 31, 1973, Assata Shakur and four others, including Fred Hilton, Avon White, and Andrew Jackson, were indicted in the State Supreme Court in the Bronx on charges of attempting to shoot and kill two policemen—Michael O’Reilly and Roy Polliana—in an ambush in St. Albans, Queens. O’Reilly and Polliana were both wounded, but had since returned to duty. On April 26, 1974, New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne signed an extradition order to move the now pregnant Assata to New York to face two counts of attempted murder, attempted assault, and possession of dangerous weapons related to the alleged ambush even though on March 5, 1974, two new defendants (Jeannette Jefferson and Robert Hayes) were named in an indictment involving the same charges. However, Assata declined to waive her right to an extradition hearing and asked for a full hearing before Middlesex County Court Judge John E. Backman. Assata Shakur was extradited to New York City on May 6, arraigned on May 11 after pleading innocent, and remanded to jail by Justice Albert S. McGrover of the State Supreme Court pending a pretrial hearing on July 2. In November 1974, New York State Supreme Court Justice Peter Farrell dismissed the attempted murder indictment because of insufficient evidence, declaring, “The court can only note with disapproval that virtually a year has passed before counsel made an application for the most basic relief permitted by law, namely an attack on the sufficiency of the evidence submitted by the grand jury.”
On May 30, 1974, Assata was indicted on the charge of having robbed a Brooklyn bar and kidnapping bartender James E. Freeman for ransom. Assata and co-defendant Ronald Myers were accused of entering the bar with pistols and shotguns, taking $50 from the register, kidnapping the bartender, leaving a note demanding a $20,000 ransom from the bar owner, and fleeing in a rented truck. Assata Shakur and co-defendant Ronald Myers were acquitted on December 19, 1975, after seven hours of jury deliberation, ending a three-month trial in front of Judge William Thompson.
In July 1973, Assata Shakur had pleaded not guilty in Federal Court in Brooklyn to an indictment related to an August 31, 1971, $7,700 robbery of the Bankers Trust Company in Queens. After being indicted by a grand jury, Judge Jacob Mishlerset set a tentative trial date of November 5 of that year. The trial was delayed until 1976, and Assata was to be represented by Evelyn Williams. However, another case Williams had taken in order to earn some money was ready for trial and couldn’t be delayed any longer. Therefore, Assata hired Stanley Cohen, and she once again acted as her own co-counsel, just as she had in the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company case and the Brooklyn bar robbery and kidnapping case.
Unlike the previous trials, this one had a carnival atmosphere about it, and the courtroom was packed with blacks supporting Shakur. The prosecution showed surveillance photos of four of the six alleged robbers, contending one of them was Shakur wearing a wig. When the judge ordered that Assata be photographed by the FBI, she refused to cooperate, believing that the FBI would use photo manipulation to prove her guilt. She was then forcibly subdued by law officials and photographed with her hair held back. In her autobiography, Assata recounts being beaten, choked, and kicked on the courtroom floor by five marshals, while Williams narrated the events to ensure they would appear in the court record.
A subsequent judge determined that the manner in which the photos were taken violated Assata’s rights and ruled the new photos inadmissible. Shortly after deliberation began, the jury asked to see all the photographic exhibits taken from the surveillance footage, and determined that the FBI photo allegedly showing Assata Shakur participating in the robbery was not her. In addition, even though one bank employee testified that Assata was one of the bank robbers, two other employees, both bank tellers, testified they were uncertain, while the bank manager stated Assata Shakur was not the woman who robbed the bank.
Assata Shakur was acquitted after seven hours of jury deliberation on January 16, 1976. She was the only one of the six suspects in the robbery to be brought to trial. Andrew Jackson and two others indicted for the same robbery pleaded guilty: Jackson was sentenced to five years in prison and five years of probation; another was shot and killed in a gun fight in Florida on December 31, 1971; and the last remained at large at the time of Assata Shakur’s acquittal.
On January 29 Assata Shakur was remanded back to New Jersey for the turnpike shootout trial. While awaiting trial, which wouldn’t take place for more than a year, she was held in solitary confinement at the Middlesex County Jail for men.
Meanwhile, in October 1977, New York State Superior Court Justice John Starkey dismissed murder and robbery charges against Assata Shakur related to the death of Richard Nelson during the December 28, 1972, hold-up of a Brooklyn social club, ruling that the State had delayed too long in bringing her to trial; “People have constitutional rights, and you can’t shuffle them around.” The delay had been brought about as the result of an agreement between the governors of New York and New Jersey as to the priority of the various charges against Shakur. Three other defendants were indicted in relation to the same hold-up; Melvin Kearney, who died in 1976 from an eighth-floor fall while trying to escape from the Brooklyn House of Detention; Twymon Myers, who was killed by police while a fugitive; and Andrew Jackson, the charges against whom were dismissed when two prosecution witnesses could not identify him in a line-up.
On November 22, 1977, Assata pleaded not guilty to the attempted armed robbery indictment stemming from the 1971 incident at the Statler Hilton Hotel in which she was shot in the stomach. She was accused of attempting to rob a Michigan man staying at the hotel of $250 of cash and personal property, and was subsequently arrested, booked, and released on bail. The prosecutor was C. Richard Gibbons. The charges were dismissed without trial.
Between 1973 and 1977, in New York and New Jersey, Shakur was indicted ten times, resulting in seven different criminal trials. Shakur was charged with two bank robberies, the kidnapping of a Brooklyn heroin dealer, attempted murder of two Queens police officers stemming from a January 23, 1973 failed ambush, and eight other felonies related to the Turnpike shootout. Of these trials, three resulted in acquittals, one in a hung jury, one in a change of venue, one in a mistrial due to pregnancy, and three indictments were dismissed without trial. Only one trial resulted in a conviction: The New Jersey Turnpike shootout deaths of Trooper Werner Foerster and Zayd Shakur.
On March 24, the jurors listened for 45 minutes to a rereading of testimony of the State Police chemist regarding the blood found at the scene, on the LeMans, and Shakur's clothing. That night, the second night of jury deliberation, the jury asked Judge Appleby to repeat his instructions regarding the four assault charges 30 minutes before retiring for the night, which led to speculation that the jury had decided in Shakur's favor on the remaining charges, especially the two counts of murder. Appleby reiterated that the jury must consider separately the four assault charges (atrocious assault and battery, assault on a police officer acting in the line of duty, assault with a deadly weapon, and assault with intent to kill), each of which carried a total maximum penalty of 33 years in prison. The other charges were: first-degree murder (of Foerster), second-degree murder (of Zayd Shakur), illegal possession of a weapon, and armed robbery (related to Foerster's service revolver). The jury also asked Appleby to repeat the definitions of "intent" and "reasonable doubt."
Shakur was convicted on all eight counts: two murder charges, and six assault charges. The prosecution did not need to prove that Shakur fired the shots that killed either Trooper Foerster or Zayd Shakur: being an accomplice to murder carries an equivalent life sentence under New Jersey law. Upon hearing the verdict, Shakur said—in a "barely audible voice"—that she was "ashamed that I have even taken part in this trial" and that the jury was "racist" and had "convicted a woman with her hands up." Judge Appleby told the court attendants to "remove the prisoner" and Shakur replied: "the prisoner will walk away on her own feet.” Three years later, she escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey and eventually went into exile, building a life in Cuba where she was granted political asylum.
Now 43 years later at the age of 69, she continues to define herself as a 20th century escaped slave while she speaks out against the U.S. government and stands up for what she believes, for the black struggle. But her voice is becoming softer. With a three-million-dollar bounty on her, and the relations between Cuba and the United States improving, she lives in fear of being extradited. For now, only the Cuban government knows her whereabouts, making many wonder if she hasn’t already relocated to another country to resume a life in exile.
This was an excerpt from Barbara Casey's book Assata Shakur: A 20th Century Escaped Slave, which chronicles the life and times of Assata Shakur, one of the most controversial activists and fugitives in U.S. history.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Barbara Casey - www.barbaracaseyagency.com - is the author of several award-winning novels for both adults and young adults, as well as works of nonfiction true crime and numerous articles, poems, and short stories. Her previous nonfiction true crime work, Kathryn Kelly: The Moll behind Machine Gun Kelly, has been optioned for a major film and television series. In addition to her own writing, she is an editorial consultant and president of the Barbara Casey Agency, established in 1995, representing authors throughout the United States, Great Britain, Canada, and Japan. Barbara is also a partner in Strategic Media Books, an independent publishing house that specializes in cutting-edge adult nonfiction. Barbara lives on a mountain in Georgia with her husband and three dogs who adopted her: Benton, a hound-mix; Fitz, a miniature dachshund; and Gert, a Jack Russel terrier of sorts.
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