Is Clinton responsible for NJ cop-killer’s Chesimard’s freedom? The facts and history
Above: Joanne Chesimard was added to the FBI's Most Wanted List in 2013.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took the stage at the Republican National Convention Tuesday prepared to attack.
He presented a seething indictment of former Secretary of State and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton — holding her to account for everything from Boko Haram's abduction of more than 200 girls to the bloody civil war in Syria that's cost more then 400,000 lives.
For instance: Clinton's State Department did hold off on naming Boko Haram a terrorist organization, but as part of a strategy it hoped would more successfully curb the group's activities without lending it credibility in the region, and while putting many of its leaders on terror lists. The State Department eventually named Boko Haram a terrorist organization in late 2013, several months after Clinton's tenure as secretary ended.
But perhaps the most striking allegation for New Jersey residents — that Clinton, in effect, "rewarded" the convicted murderer of a New Jersey State Trooper with safety in Cuba.
“How could someone live with their own conscience when you reward a domestic terrorist with continued safety and at the same time betray the family of fallen police officer?” Christie asked. “Hillary Clinton, as a coddler of the brutal Castro brothers and betrayer of the family of fallen State Trooper Werner Foerster. Is she guilty or not guilty?”
The crowd roared: Guilty.
Who is Joanne Chesimard?
Joanne Chesimard, 68. is a fugitive from justice, living in Cuba since the 1980s. The Black Panther and Black Liberation Army activist, who also goes by the name Assata Shakur, remains atop the State Police Most Wanted list and was named to the FBI's Most Wanted list in 2013.
In 1977, Chesimard was convicted of the first-degree murder of Officer Werner Foerster and of seven other felonies related to the New Jersey Turnpike shootout that killed him. Trooper James Harper, who'd initially stopped the car for a broken taillight, was also seriously injured in the incident, as was a fellow BLA member.
She escaped from prison in 1979 and fled to Cuba in 1984, where she received political asylum.
Supporters have maintained her innocence. Chesimard in a 1998 interview with WNBC from Havana said she was “shot with my arms in the air, then shot again in the back and left on the ground to die.” State Police at the time told the Associated Press she lied about the encounter.
Chesimard is also known by the names Barbara Odoms, Mary Davis, Justine Henderson, Joanne Byron, Josephine Henderson, Assata Shaku and, Joanne Chesterman.
How does that involve Clinton?
President Barack Obama in late 2014 — nearly two years after Clinton left office as secretary of state — announced a reversal of U.S. policy toward Cuba. While a decades-old trade embargo with the communist country remains in place, the administration announced a prisoner exchange and the beginning of work to reestablish diplomatic and economic ties. Cuba released an American prisoner and exchanged an American spy for three imprisoned Cuban intelligence officers.
Travel restrictions were loosened. Last year, the State Department ended its designation of Cuba as a sponsor of terrorism.
At the time, there was no announcement from the administration about securing Chesimard's capture and extradition.
While Clinton was out of office when the deal was announced, according to several reports, she was an early and leading architect of the new policy, far more eager for it than the White House had initially been.
"According to current and former White House and State Department officials and several Cuba policy experts who were involved in the discussions, Clinton was also the top advocate inside the government for ending travel and trade restrictions on Cuba and reversing 50 years of U.S. policy to isolate the Communist island nation," Bloomberg reported in 2014.
What does Clinton say about the deal?
The same Bloomberg article notes Clinton often played down her role in the Cuba policy change — perhaps eyeing her presidential run. But she did publicly support it on several occasions, and continues to do so.
“As Secretary of State, I pushed for (freed American Alan Gross') release, stayed in touch with Alan’s wife Judy and their daughters, and called for a new direction in Cuba," she said in a 2014 statement. "Despite good intentions, our decades-long policy of isolation has only strengthened the Castro regime's grip on power.”
She later called on Congress to lift the trade embargo. It still has not.
When the initial deal was announced, CNN asked her about improving relations with Cuba without returning Chesimard.
“Having been involved in some of those negotiations when I was still secretary of state, you push as hard as you can to get as much as you can," she said at the time.
New Jersey leadership on Chesimard
The thawing of relations with Cuba hasn't gone over well with New Jersey's law enforcement or political leadership.
The head of the New Jersey State Troopers Union, in a pointed letter to President Barack Obama earlier this year, said Obama should demand Cuba return dozens of “despicable human beings” hiding there from U.S. justice — including Chesimard.
Christie himself has said the state’s airports shouldn’t be allowed to run any flights between Newark and Cuba until she’s returned to the United States.
In 2014, he wrote a letter to Obama calling Chesimard's continued freedom "an affront to every resident of our state, our country, and in particular, the men and women of the New Jersey State Police, who have tirelessly tried to bring this killer back to justice."
Christie said he was in deep disagreement with the change in policy — but also said he hoped it was an opportunity for Cuba to show it was serious about justice.
"I am very disappointed that returning a convicted killer of a police officer was not already demanded and accomplished in the context of the steps you have announced regarding this dictatorship," he wrote.
Democratic Senator Robert Menendez has also railed against the normalization of relations, citing Chesimard's freedom as one reason among many.
In an appearance on Bill Spadea's morning show for New Jersey 101.5 Wednesday, Lt. Gov Kim Guadagno said that when she'd been an assistant New Jersey attorney general 15 years ago, "there were boxes with Joanne Chesimard's name on them."
"We were ready to prosecute her then, and we're ready to prosecute her now," Guadagno said. "All they have to do is bring her back. And they should. We shouldn't give anything away for free."
Spadea said he found it "shocking" that the "Obama adminsitration was just so cold and callous about it."
Could Cuba policy actually mean Chesimard is returned after all?
Though administration officials didn't speak of Chesimard's return as a condition of improved relations in 2014, there have been occasional, sporadic signs of progress on that front.
In April of 2014, the State Department announced it would begin discussing the possible return not only of Chesimard, but other fugitives in conjunction with a further improvement of diplomatic relations.
That announcement came a day after Cuba was removed from the terror list.
"We see the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and the reopening of an embassy in Havana as the means by which we'll be able, more effectively, to press the Cuban government on law enforcement issues such as fugitives," State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said at the time, according to the Associated Press. And Cuba has agreed to enter into a law enforcement dialogue with the United States that will work to resolve these cases."
No announcement has been made on the matter since then.
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