She's a convicted domestic terrorist who executed a state trooper, according to the FBI.
Joanne Chesimard has lived in Cuba for nearly 30 years. She's known there as Assata Shakur. But, back in the United States, law enforcement refers to her as Joanne Chesimard. That is the original name of the woman convicted in the death of a New Jersey state trooper.
Now that the two nations, the US and Cuba, are repairing old political wounds, her case, and her fate, is back front and center.
Havana is a city where history hides out in the open. It is easy to see as you walk the old cobblestone roads, from the classic cars, Chevys and Fords, to constant reminders of the revolution etched across the heart of the island nation.
And on those same streets, where the communist movement took hold in 1959, American fugitives were once welcomed.
Among the most notable was Joanne Chesimard. In an audio recording explaining her case to the Vatican before the pope's visit in 1998, Joanna says she saw her crimes as a ‘necessary step.'
“Not only because I was innocent of the charges against me, but because I knew with the racist legal system, I would receive no justice” she said.
But justice in this case, the concept of fairness, is as elusive as the fragile truce finally emerging between Cuba and United States.
It was May 2nd, 1973 just after midnight. Chesimard and two other members of the Black Liberation Army also known as the BLA, were stopped by New Jersey State Troopers in East Brunswick.
Authorities say during that time, there was a discussion with a trooper and the group. The trooper had asked for identification. The troopers discover an ammunition clip which triggered a confrontation followed by a bloody shootout
One of the BLA members was killed and 34-year-old trooper Werner Foerster is shot with his own service weapon.
Chesimard and the other surviving BLA member, Sundiata Acoli were charged with murder.
Investigators believe she fired the first shot, wounding the other trooper then took Foerster's gun and shot him twice in the head as he lay on the ground.
Her defenders maintain she couldn't have fired because she too was shot.
She spoke about it.. In a documentary.
"My arms were in the air. And a split second later. They shot me. With my arms in the air. And then again in the back," she said in a clip.
In 1977, after a set of lengthy trials, Chesimard -- by then calling herself "Assata Shakur"...was convicted and sent to the Clinton Correctional Facility for women..
She wouldn't be there long.
The escape happened on Nov 2nd 1979, 2 years after the conviction. 3 members of the BLA posed as visitors at the prison. But once inside they pulled pistols and took 2 guards hostage. Eventually escaping with Chesimard in a prison van. She lived underground for several years and by the mid 80s Fidel Castro granted her asylum.
In the eyes of the FBI, the eyes of the New Jersey State Police, New Jersey State Troopers this case have never been closed.
In 2013, 40 years after that night on the NJ turnpike, Joanne Chesimard was the first female added to the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list.
Richard Frankel is the Special Agent in charge of the FBI's Newark office.
“She was a domestic terrorist,” he said. “She was part of a terrorist organization and she committed a terrorist act killing the state trooper. So, she's always been in the opinion of the FBI a domestic terrorist.”
The agency, along with the state of New Jersey, is offering a $2 million dollar reward for the now 67 year old fugitive.
Dr. Peniel Joseph a professor of African-American History at Tufts University says to truly understand the gravity of the Shakur case, you have to take into consideration the charged racial climate in the US during the 60s and 70s.
The BLA, known for its militancy and violence toward law enforcement, considered themselves revolutionaries fighting for independence, modeling themselves in part on the Cuban revolution just a few years earlier.
A godmother to late rapper Tupac Shakur, she remains a relevant figure in the Black Power movement. Powerful and controversial as well…
Just recently, Kean University in Union New Jersey cancelled a commencement speech from musician Common over a song he wrote about her.
Now, on the Havana streets, where the woman convicted for the crime has written her own history. the next chapter, remains uncertain.
Here are some links related to the story: