When I first became acquainted with Joe Connor and other victims of the deadly terrorist group known as the FALN (Armed Forces of National Liberation), I could never have anticipated that it would lead to where it has today.
The group's goal of Puerto Rican independence historically ranks at five percent or less among the island's population. The rest of the island is roughly equally divided between U.S. statehood or the current commonwealth status. Support for the FALN itself -- especially considering their tactics -- is minuscule. Their few members had thought that they could maim, kill and terrorize their way into forcing both Puerto Rico and the United States into submission.
Their group, which was formed in Chicago by Carlos Torres and Oscar Lopez-Rivera, would set off nearly 140 bombs in cities across the country during the 1970s and '80s, and they would cause indiscriminate death and suffering. Six were killed and more than 80 injured. Joe Connor's father Frank was killed at the group's most infamous attack at the Fraunces Tavern in 1975. Joe and his brother Tom were still just children.
The only thing that stopped the FALN's reign of terror would be their eventual capture and incarceration. But shockingly, in 1999, Bill Clinton offered clemency for virtually every member of the FALN, even including two who were caught on surveillance tape constructing bombs.
One member who chose not to accept Clinton's offer was FALN co-founder and co-leader Oscar Lopez. He was also a bomb-maker and bomb trainer for the group, and had previously tried to escape from prison twice. The latter attempt had included plans for violence and murder. Over the years, Lopez has repeatedly refused to express regret or remorse.
This past November, Joe Connor found out that Lopez was scheduled for a hearing before the U.S. Parole Commission that was set for January 5th. Joe put out the word for help in keeping Lopez in prison, and I could not say no. I also realized what an uphill battle it would be, but was determined to try.
I ended up becoming a member of a group of people that included a few of the many victims of the FALN, including the Connor brothers, along with a former prosecutor and retired FBI agents who had been among those responsible for capturing and incarcerating members of the terrorist group. For me, I was not only doing this for the victims, but for our system of justice, and to also make a statement against standing up to terror.
Just days before Lopez's hearing, it began to dawn on me that this was an almost impossible task. We were taking on the powers that be. Just last July, and with no notice, the parole commission released Carlos Torres. But this time, there would be opposition. And as heinous as Carlos Torres was, Oscar Lopez was even worse.
Joe and Tom Connor were accompanied by two other FALN victims and a former FBI agent when they arrived on a cold, clear Indiana morning for Lopez's parole hearing. It took place at the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Institute on Wednesday, January 5th.
After their phones and blackberries were confiscated, they were led to the hearing room, where the parole commission hearing examiner, along with Lopez and longtime FALN attorney Jan Susler were waiting. Susler immediately tried to have the witnesses dismissed, but the examiner would have none of it.
Besides the Connor brothers, the other victims who spoke were a woman who lost her husband during the Fraunces Tavern bombing and a man who was severely injured there.
Lopez spoke next, and in an often rambling and incoherent manner, he admitted being a member of the FALN, but said there was no blood on his hands. He seemed to blame much of his behavior on the fact that he was a Vietnam veteran. But the examiner dismissed that argument, and noted that he himself had also served in the military.
And then a miracle happened. The examiner said that he was going to recommend to the full commission that Lopez serve at least until 2023, his scheduled release date. Depending on his behavior, he might even serve more of his 70-year sentence, which would actually end in 2051.
Before the hearing, I had been informed by commission staff that Lopez's case would likely be an "original jurisdiction case," which meant that his release would require a unanimous decision among the commissioners. We have since learned that the designation has yet to be determined. If it is not, then either one or two commissioners would make the final ruling.
However many commissioners may be involved in the ultimate decision, they will hopefully take the examiner's recommendation to heart, and look inward to their better angels, and choose to keep Oscar Lopez-Rivera in prison.