Castro’s Dead and NJ Wants the Cop-Killer He Protected Back
Will the death of Fidel Castro open up a chance to bring convicted cop-killer Joanne Chesimard home to face justice?
Chesimard, convicted in 1977 of killing State Police officer Werner Foerster four years earlier, escaped to Cuba in 1979, where she remains in Cuba's protective custody. Several officials — including New Jersey State Police leaders — criticized President Barack Obama in late 2014 for beginning efforts to normalize relations with Cuba without securing Chesmiard's extradition.
Chesimard, 68, a 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.
"Upon digesting the news of his demise, we strongly urge President-elect Trump to reverse the shameful White House policy of friendship with a despotic government, allowing convicted US fugitives, most notably Joanne Chesimard, to be harbored and given safe haven in Cuba, Christopher J. Burgos, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association of New Jersey and Pete J. Stilianessis, president of the State Troopers NCO Association of NJ in a joint statement.
They continued: "The murderer of Trooper Werner Foerster belongs back on US soil to face justice."
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.”
Supporters have maintained Chesimard's 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.
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.
Burgos 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.
Gov. Chris Christie 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 Obama administration's 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.
Could Cuba policy actually mean Chesimard is returned after all?
Though administration officials haven't spoken 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 U.S.'s 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.
In July, Christie said at the Republican National Convention that he blamed Hillary Clinton for Chesimard's continued freedom. The change in administration policy came two years after Clinton's time as secretary of state ended, but 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.
“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?”
Castro and Princeton
Fidel Castro's history intersects with New Jersey's in at least one other way.
Castro took power in January 1959 and several months later paid a visit to the United States that included a visit to Princeton University. Fifty-seven State Police officers provided protection for the then-32-year-old Castro, the youngest leader in Latrin America during his visit.
According to Princeton's archives, Castro accepted an invitation from the American Whig-Cliosophic Society and spoke to the Woodrow Wilson School’s Special Program in American Civilization. Princeton's president at the time, Robert Goshen, gave Castro a tour of the campus, and the Cuban president was a guest of honor for the Present Day Club.
Castro stayed at the home of Princeton professor Roland Ely. He also visited with New Jersey governor Robert Meyner and his wife at Drumthawket according to the archives of the New York Daily News.
— With reporting by Dan Alexander and Louis C. Hochman