Criminal justice reformers who say prisoners can be rehabilitated and deserve mercy found a champion in President Obama, who gave so many convicts a second chance that he left office as the president who commuted more sentences than any other in American history.
Yet Diana “Deenie” Berger-Ettenson said the outgoing president goofed in his last round of reprieves last week, when he gave Oscar Lopez Rivera the keys to freedom.
Rivera, 74, was one of the leaders of the FALN, or Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, a now-defunct paramilitary group that fought for Puerto Rican independence — by bombing government buildings, banks, and other places in Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C., between 1974 and 1983.
Alejandro “Alex” Berger, 28, a Uruguay native then living in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, was one of six people who died in those bombings. His young wife, Berger-Ettenson, was six months pregnant with their son Adrian in 1975, when the FALN bombed the Fraunces Tavern in New York City, where Berger, who worked for the chemical company Rohm and Haas, had met business associates for lunch. The blast killed him instantly.
That was 42 years ago today, but the pain remains agonizingly fresh for his survivors.
“For me, the month of January, beginning to end, is extremely difficult,” said Berger-Ettenson, now 69, who still lives in Cherry Hill. “Every January is like a hole in the gut all over again, even though it’s been 42 years. [Obama’s pardon], one week before the anniversary, was just like a knife in the gut.”
Most of those whose sentences Obama reduced were nonviolent drug offenders, their release applauded as an antidote to disparate sentencing laws. Any outrage over Obama’s clemency decisions instead focused on his commutation of Chelsea Manning, an Army analyst convicted of leaking military secrets.
The FALN, though, has been long-regarded as one of the country’s most active domestic terrorist groups, responsible for about 130 bomb attacks that killed six people and maimed dozens. Sixteen FALN members eventually were jailed, including Rivera, who was sentenced in 1981 to 55 years in federal prison for seditious conspiracy and weapons offenses, and another 15 years in 1988 for a violent plot to escape the Leavenworth federal prison in Kansas.
In 1999, President Bill Clinton offered to commute the FALN members’ sentences on the condition that they renounce terrorism as a method of achieving Puerto Rican independence. But Rivera refused to reject violence, remaining behind bars even as 12 other FALN members accepted the conditions for release.
Obama required no such condition in commuting Rivera’s sentence. He will be freed on May 17. No one told the families of the FALN’s victims about Rivera’s commutation; Berger-Ettenson found out about it from a newspaper article.
“I really don’t understand,” Berger-Ettenson said of Rivera’s commutation. “I don’t understand why Obama did it. I would certainly hope he didn’t do it to please anyone. I find it hard to believe he would have commuted the sentence if he knew everything involved with the case.”
Rivera’s supporters, who include everyone from Bernie Sanders to Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Lin-Manuel Miranda, have called him a political prisoner. Obama administration officials have said Rivera earned the commutation because he was the only FALN member still behind bars and has served half his life in prison.
Rivera also wasn’t specifically charged with the Fraunces attack. No one was.
But Berger-Ettenson said Rivera’s supporters seem to have forgotten that he masterminded multiple murders and has remained steadfastly unrepentant about that.
“I don’t think you make a point by killing people and bombing buildings,” she said.
While Rivera soon will walk away from his murderous past, his victims’ loved ones will never have that same luxury, Berger-Ettenson said.
Adrian Berger-Ettenson is now 41, 13 years older than his father was when he died in the Fraunces bombing. He inherited his father’s analytical mind and works as a chemical engineer for the same company where his father worked (Dow Chemical, which acquired Rohm & Haas in 2009), his mother said.
Rivera does not deserve mercy now, merely because he is an old man who behaves himself in prison and has celebrity supporters, Diana Berger-Ettenson said.
“I dread May, because when Oscar Lopez Rivera is released, unfortunately, there will be parades in New York, Chicago, and Puerto Rico celebrating him as a hero. It’s important that people are aware of what happened,” she said, referring to the deadly bombings the FALN orchestrated. “He is no hero, by any stretch of the definition.”