Assata Shakur, an ex member of the Black Panthers who escaped from prison and fled to Cuba in 1979, has officially been added to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list, making her the first woman ever. Shakur — born JoAnne Byron (married name Chesimard) — was a member of the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army when she was convicted of killing a New Jersey police officer in 1973. In 1979, she managed to escape from prison and fled to Cuba, where she was granted political asylum and has been ever since. Since 2005, the FBI has classified her as a domestic terrorist and has offered a $1 million reward for her capture. Yesterday, the 40-year anniversary of the New Jersey Turnpike shootout, they upgraded her to the 10 Most Wanted List.
There’s a lot to read and sift through in regards to Shakur’s involvement in that incident and the various other crimes of which she was accused and convicted. Shakur has long maintained her innocence in regards to the death of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster on May 2, 1973, and during her trial, her defense team presented testimony from medical experts that asserted the wounds Shakur obtained during the shootout — she was shot in both arms and the shoulder — would have made it impossible for her to fire upon Foerster. Additionally, during the trial, one of the prosecution’s primary witnesses, the other officer present (and wounded) at the shootout, Trooper James Harper, admitted he’d lied in all three of his initial statements when he said Shakur shot and killed Foerster and also shot at him. He admitted on the stand that he had in fact never seen Shakur with a gun and that she did not shoot at him. There was also no gunpowder found on Shakur’s fingers. (Shakur testified that after she was shot by Foerster, she took cover for the duration of the gunfight.) In the end, the all-white, 15-person jury, five of whom had personal ties to state troopers, convicted Shakur of all eight counts (two murder charges and six assault charges). She was sentenced to 26 to 33 years in prison.
Of her conviction and eventual escape to Cuba, Shakur once wrote, ”I am a 20th century escaped slave. Because of government persecution, I was left with no other choice than to flee from the political repression, racism and violence that dominate the U.S. government’s policy towards people of color.” There have been numerous attempts to have her extradited, including an appeal to Pope John Paul II in 1998. In response, Shakur wrote a letter to the Pope which you can read here.