What will President Obama's vow to normalize relations with Cuba mean for an American fugitive from justice living in the communist country?
Assata Shakur, formerly JoAnne Chesimard and the step-aunt of deceased rapper Tupac Shakur, was convicted of killing a New Jersey State trooper on May 2, 1973. Now 67, Shakur escaped from a New Jersey prison in made-for-the-movies fashion in 1979 and found her way to Cuba, where she was eventually granted asylum under Fidel Castro in 1984.
News that the two countries have agreed to restore relations after 50 years have many U.S. officials hoping Shakur will be extradited back to the U.S. to carry out the remainder of her life sentence. After all, Cuba on Wednesday released American contractor Alan Gross, who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years. Officials there have also agreed to free an intelligence agent who spied for the U.S. and was held on the island for almost two decades. And the U.S., in turn, freed three Cuban intelligence agents convicted of espionage and being held in the U.S.
If Cuba really wants to warm relations, the thinking goes, they should extradite Shakur, a member of the Black Panthers and Black Liberation Army, who last year was named a Most Wanted Terrorist by the FBI — the first woman ever to make the list.
The White House referred requests for comment on the matter back National Security Council. Bernadette Meehan, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, told msnbc, “We will continue to press for the return of U.S. fugitives in Cuba to pursue justice for the victims of their crimes in our engagement with the Cuban government.” There are approximately 80 fugitives in Cuba who are wanted by the U.S.
Meehan’s statement came after several New Jersey lawmakers and officials called for Shakur’s return and as bounty for her capture stands at $2 million. Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen said in a statement that the White House and State Department needs to work “much harder to bring this murderer ‘home’ to New Jersey where she can face justice and serve out her sentence.”
Acting New Jersey Attorney General John Hoffman told msnbc in a statement that with America’s decision to ease relations with Cuba, “We remain ever hopeful in our resolve to bring Joanne Chesimard to justice. We will be working closely with federal authorities as we explore ways to apprehend her and return her to her rightful place in a New Jersey prison.” And New Jersey State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes said he views “any changes in relations with Cuba as an opportunity to bring her back to the United States."
Shakur’s conviction has been questioned, with several activists and lawyers dismissing the validity of the verdict, arguing that race may have unfairly been a factor. The National Lawyers Guild, which represented Shakur, is urging American authorities to respect her political asylum status in Cuba.
"The National Lawyers Guild calls on New Jersey law enforcement to respect the political asylum status of Assata Shakur in accordance with international law, especially in light of yesterday's announcement of plans for renewed US-Cuba relations. Under the pretense of 'counter-terrorism,' the US has for the last 40 years persecuted Ms. Shakur for her political views and activism, while she inspired generations in the fight for racial justice," NLG President Azadeh Shahshahani told msnbc.
What we do know is Shakur — who was in a car with two other activists, Zayd Shakur (unrelated to Assata) and Sundiata Acoli — was arrested during a routine traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. The stop resulted in a gunfight, and Zayd Shakur and police officer Werner Foerster were both killed. Another police officer and Assata Shakur were both wounded.
Shakur, who was born in Jamaica, Queens, was convicted of first degree murder in 1977 along with seven other felonies in connection to the shootout. Two years later, she managed to escape the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey when three members of the Black Liberation Army drew their guns during a visit, took two guards as hostages and seized control of a prison van. Shakur surfaced in Cuba about five years later.
While much isn’t known about Shakur’s life in Cuba, she has continued to speak out on global injustice, including in her 1987 autobiography. She also wrote an open letter to Pope John Paul II during his trip to Cuba in 1998, which said “I am not the first, nor the last person to be victimized by the New Jersey system of 'justice.’ The New Jersey State Police are infamous for their racism and brutality.” She gave an interview, in which she claimed her innocence, to NBC reporter Ralph Penza that same year.
Critics argue medical evidence showed Shakur was shot with her hands in the air and that she would have been unable to fire a weapon. And according to the NLG, the proceedings were filled with constitutional violations: All 15 jurors were white and five of them had personal connections to state troopers. The group also insists that a state Assembly member spoke to jury members at the hotel where they were sequestered and encouraged them to convict Shakur.
Whether or not Cuba decides to extradite Shakur, of course, remains to be seen. The country has had an extradition treaty with the U.S. since 1904, but it hasn’t really been enforced during the Castro reign. There’s also a clause in the treaty that says a fugitive criminal shall not be surrendered if the “offense in respect of which his surrender is demanded be of a political character,” which could apply to the Shakur case, said Douglas McNabb, an international criminal defense lawyer who specializes in extradition.
But “any state can do anything they want, even if there is an extradition treaty,” said McNabb. “From a policy standpoint, Cuba is going to have to make a decision.”
Stephen Vladeck, an expert on national security law at American University College of Law, echoed that sentiment, saying “So much of extradition law Is just politics. The real question is whether the Cuban government decides it's in its interest to cooperate with New Jersey through the Justice Department.”
The chance that Shakur would actually be extradited doesn’t look good, said Vladeck, noting “it sends a terrible message to anyone that would seek asylum in Cuba.”
But Bob Anello, a New York lawyer who deal with extradition cases, said “it certainly will be easier than when we weren’t talking to Cuba, although it may not be the first order of priority.” He predicted, “You will see both countries trying to do things to foster better relations.”