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With new parole hearings coming for MOVE 9, supporters push for parole

Supporters of the seven surviving members of MOVE 9, sentenced to life in 1978 for killing a cop, say they have been rehabilitated.
Michael Africa, Jr., right, and son Tiger with his mother Debbie Africa, one of the MOVE 9 sentenced to life in prison for a police officer's 1978 murdered. (Courtesy of Michael Africa Jr.)

On Aug. 8, 1978, a Philadelphia cop was killed while officers were in a standoff with the controversial black group MOVE at a Powelton Village house. Nine members of MOVE were later convicted of third-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, 30 to 100 years. As new parole hearings approach on the 40th anniversary of the standoff, supporters of the so-called MOVE 9 (two of whom have died in prison) are renewing calls for their release on parole.

Parole hearings are expected to take place in May for the three women of the MOVE 9, members Janet, Janine and Debbie Africa, and on Monday, their supporters organized a blitz of phone calls, faxes and tweets to the state Board of Probation and Parole, calling on them to grant the women parole. All of the surviving MOVE 9 members have been eligible for parole since 2008, including Eddie, Mike Sr., Delbert and Chuck Africa, but they have have been denied parole. (Two members, Phil and Merle Africa, died in prison.)

"They've paid their debt. They've paid and then some," said Michael Africa, 39, whose parents, Debbie and Michael Africa, Sr., both members of the MOVE 9, have been incarcerated his entire life. Debbie was pregnant when she was arrested, and Michael said he was born in prison. "This isn't even dealing with August 8, because they've already paid for that. They paid 30 years plus 10 more years than their minimum sentence."

Philadelphia Police Officer James Ramp was killed on Aug. 8 during the first MOVE incident. Members of MOVE, which calls itself a black liberation group but is also called a cult by some, were heavily armed and were in a standoff with police there to evict them from a Powelton Village home they had occupied illegally for some time. Several police officers and firefighters were injured during a shootout outside the house which ended in a surrender by MOVE.

The incident preceded the more infamous May 13, 1985, bombing by police of the Cobbs Creek house occupied by other MOVE members including founder John Africa. Eleven members inside died, including five children, and some 65 houses were burned in a subsequent fire.

During the Powelton Village incident, some observers said they saw gunfire from the MOVE compound strike Ramp, while MOVE denied responsibility and said he was hit by another shooter or friendly fire. But Michael Africa said Ramp's death should not be the main issue anymore.

"We realize that this is a delicate case. They don't really want to be so quick to let people who are accused of killing a cop on parole. … But the parole board seems to be retrying them, asking them questions about the incident that seem to have nothing to do with the years they've spent," he said. "It's supposed to be, 'Have you been rehabilitated and can you be a member of a society and a productive citizen?' The case has nothing to do with it."

All three women of the MOVE 9 are incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania, and are due for parole hearings in May. Board of Probation and Parole records for the three women show that they have each had multiple parole hearings since 2008, when they first became eligible under the 30-to-100-year sentences all nine received. All three were denied in 2008 on grounds that included, according to the board's decision, "minimization/denial of the nature and circumstances of the offense(s) committed," "refusal to accept responsibility" and "lack of remorse." At their last hearings in 2016, they were denied for the same reasons, as well as for posing a "risk to the community."