By Emilie Lounsberry, Inquirer Staff Writer
Seven MOVE members who have been behind bars since 1978 for their part in the shoot-out that killed Philadelphia Police Officer James Ramp and injured seven others are up for parole soon - amid a swell of opposition from police and prosecutors.
The seven are scheduled for parole interviews in April, and it will then be up to the state Board of Probation and Parole to decide whether they would be able to walk out of prison. Five of nine votes would be required for parole to be granted.
"I don't think they should ever get out," said Thomas Hesson, 69, a retired police officer who was shot in the chest in the Aug. 8, 1978, confrontation. His wounds, he added, nearly cost him his life and ruined his career.
The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office also has weighed in, urging the board to require the defendants to serve the maximum of their 30- to 100-year prison terms.
"They got 30 to 100 for a reason," Deputy District Attorney John Delaney said yesterday.
He said he wrote a letter to the board asking in the "strongest possible terms" that parole be denied.
The seven were among nine MOVE members convicted in a 19-week trial in 1980 that, at the time, was the longest and most expensive in Pennsylvania history. An eighth defendant will be eligible for parole next year and a ninth died in prison.
All nine were found guilty of third-degree murder in the shooting death of Ramp, and the attempted murders of the others shot and injured that day, when police tried to evict 12 adults and 11 children from their headquarters at 33d and Pearl Streets in Powelton Village.
Prosecutors contended there was no doubt the fatal shot came from inside the MOVE house because a ballistics match between a weapon found in the house and bullet fragments in Ramp's body proved that the rifle killed him.
As Common Pleas Judge Edwin S. Malmed sentenced them, the defendants shouted obscenities at him.
The seven with scheduled parole interviews in April are: Delbert Orr Africa, Edward Goodman Africa, William Phillips Africa, Michael Davis Africa, Janet Hollaway Africa, Jeanene Phillips Africa and Debbie Sims Africa. Charles Sims Africa probably will have an interview in November; his minimum date is in February 2009.
They are held in state prisons across Pennsylvania, including Graterford and Dallas.
The 1978 confrontation was a pivotal moment in the city's torturous history with the radical group and ultimately set the stage for another disastrous event - the May 1985 conflagration that killed 11 MOVE members, including five children, and destroyed 62 houses along Osage Avenue. The 11 were killed after police dropped an incendiary device on the MOVE compound and decided to let it burn.
If released, some of the defendants might have some money waiting for them.
In 1990, the city agreed to pay $2.5 million to end a lawsuit brought by parents of the five children who died in the May 13, 1985, siege - including Delbert Orr Africa and Janet Holloway Africa for the death of their daughter, Delisha, 12; and William Phillips Africa and Jeanene Phillips Africa for the death of their son, Philip Delmar, 12.
Offenders are usually interviewed for parole consideration three months before they reach their minimum sentence. Parole can be granted at any time between the minimum and the maximum sentence. Over the course of the last year, the board granted parole in 61 percent of the cases it considered.
MOVE - which started out as a back-to-nature organization but which is known more for generating support for people it believes have become political prisoners - is not an acronym, and all members use the surname Africa.
Members of the group have long railed against the conviction of the nine, saying that prosecutors were never able to prove who fired the fatal shot.
MOVE member Ramona Africa said yesterday that she hoped the parole board doesn't force them to serve their maximums.
"There's no reason at all for them not to be paroled," said Africa, who served her maximum prison sentence related to charges filed after the 1985 MOVE bombing.
"We have no confidence in this system," she said. "Of course they want to come home. They've been away from their family for 30 years. But we never expect anything right from this system."
Paul Hetznecker, the lawyer who represented the MOVE members for years, said he hoped they would be paroled.
"It would be outrageous not to be released after all these years," Hetznecker said, adding that there was a "lack of evidence presented during the trial," especially about the three female defendants, who he said were in the basement trying to protect children during the confrontation.
But the city's law enforcement community hopes all the defendants will remain behind bars.
Michael G. Lutz, vice president of Lodge 5 of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, wrote a letter to the board urging that parole be rejected.
In the letter, Lutz evoked the memory of Ramp and also cited the three other officers who were shot and injured.
"May the courage of these officers never become a faded memory of the past, nor may the courage of Police Officer James Ramp be forever sealed in the silence of death," he wrote in the letter, which is on the FOP Web site.
Hesson, the retired officer wounded in the encounter that killed Ramp, said that even so many years later, the events remain unforgettable. "It never leaves your mind," he said.
See more photos from the first MOVE confrontation at http://go.philly.com/move
Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at 215-854-4828 or firstname.lastname@example.org.