TRENTON - new Jersey State Police are asking Pope John Paul II to help them track down a convicted cop-killer who fled to Cuba after escaping from prison in 1979.

The State Police superintendent sent a letter to the pope through the United Nations mail service, requesting his help to get Joanne Chesimard sent back to New Jersey.

Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur, was convicted in 1977 for killing Trooper Werner Foerster and wounding Trooper James Harper during a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike on May 2, 1973.

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Chesimard, who is now 50, escaped from a New Jersey state prison in 1979 and resurfaced eight years later in Cuba, where she is living under political asylum.

John Paul, who will tour Cuba from Jan. 21 to Jan. 25, has not responded to the State Police request.

A spokeswoman in the papal press office said she did not know if the pope received the letter.

Police would not release copies of the letter. But officials said they hope the pope will persuade Cuban President Fidel Castro to extradite the fugitive - who was a member of the militant Black Liberation Army.

"It's a long shot, but we figured we could ask," said State Police spokesman Al Della Fave. "At least it would be a way to get the ear of Fidel."

State Police spokesman John Hagerty, contacted Tuesday night by the Associated Press, had no comment.

Officials interviewed by a local newspaper said the pope does not usually intervene in such cases, unless a larger moral issue is involved.

"This request would just complicate the pope's mission," said Detlev Vagts, an international law professor at Harvard University.

And even if John Paul did intervene, Castro would be unlikely to comply because there is no extradition treaty between the United States and Cuba, officials said.

New Jersey has never made a formal extradition request because of the lack of a treaty, a spokesman for state Attorney General Peter Verniero said.

Chesimard was sentenced to life in prison after a six-week trial in 1977.

In October 1995, State Police dedicated a new barracks in Cranbury to Foerster. A bronze plaque with the trooper's picture is located in the lobby.

Foerster's widow, Rose, who lives in Fort Meyers Beach, Fla., said she was not informed about attempts to enlist the pope's help.

Originally published Dec. 25, 1997


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