Ex-Black Panther sentenced to 20 years for 1980s hijacking

By Zachary Fagenson
William Potts speaks to reporters outside Havana's Jose Marti International Airport, before boarding a plane to the U.S. November 6, 2013. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) - A former member of the Black Panther Party who hijacked a commercial airplane and forced it to fly to Cuba nearly 30 years ago was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Thursday by a federal judge in Florida.

William Potts Jr., 57, will be eligible for parole in about seven years, under the ruling by U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore.

Potts returned to the United States in November 2013 after spending almost three decades in Cuba, including 13 years in prison, after forcing a Piedmont Airlines flight to go to Havana in 1984.

"He has served a very long sentence in a prison that is known for being one of the worst hell holes on the planet,” Potts' attorney, federal public defender Robert Berube, said.

“There were no bathroom facilities. There were plastic sheets on the beds because urine drips down through the ceilings,” he said.

Potts, who faced an air piracy charge and later pleaded guilty to kidnapping, faced 20 years to life in prison upon his return. He sought credit for time served in Cuba and argued that he is a changed man.

"I went through a growth process and transformation and I believe I came out better for it,” Potts, who was shackled and wearing a khaki jumpsuit, said in court on Thursday.

The indictment against Potts said the hijacked plane left from New York and that he handed a flight attendant a note claiming to have planted explosives on board.

Potts, also known by aliases William Freeman Jr. and Lieutenant Spartacus, said he expected to be welcomed in Cuba, but instead was put on trial and convicted.

After his release, Potts was granted residency in communist-controlled Cuba, got married and fathered two daughters who have lived in the United States near Atlanta since 2012.

“Everything changes when you become a parent,” Potts said. “You realize everything you’ve done before, none of that stuff matters.”

He is thought to be one of the last of more than a dozen members of the Black Panthers, a black nationalist group that emerged in the 1960s, living in Cuba. Others have returned home to face long prison terms or died.

Cuba has returned a number of U.S. fugitives since 2006 but Washington says dozens remain in the Caribbean country.

(Editing by David Adams and Bill Trott)