By Zachary Fagenson
MIAMI (Reuters) – A former member of the Black Panther Party who hijacked a U.S. plane and forced it to fly to Cuba nearly 30 years ago pleaded not guilty on in U.S. federal court on Wednesday to charges of air piracy.
Potts faces 20 years to life in prison on U.S. charges that he hijacked a Piedmont Airlines flight in 1984 and demanded it re-route from Florida to Havana. He was arrested when the plane arrived in the Cuban capital, charged with air piracy and sentenced to 13 years in a Cuban prison.
Wearing a khaki prison jumpsuit and handcuffs, Potts did not make any public comments in court. A bond hearing scheduled for Wednesday was postponed until next week after Pott’s public defender, Paul Korchin, learned he also faces a 1984 arrest warrant in New Jersey on armed robbery charges.
Potts told reporters before he left Havana on a charter flight to Miami he was seeking “closure” and hoped to persuade U.S. prosecutors to take into consideration the time he served in a Cuban prison.
The U.S. 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 the aliases William Freeman and Lieutenant Spartacus, said he thought he would be welcomed in Cuba but was instead put on trial and convicted.
After his release Potts was granted residency in Cuba, got married and fathered two daughters who have lived in the United States since 2012.
In an initial court appearance last week, Potts told the court, “With total respect, I have to protest these proceedings.” A judge cut him off before he could describe the reason for his protest.
Asked about his financial situation to determine if he qualified for a public defender, Potts described himself as a farmer who earns the equivalent of about $10 a month.
Potts is thought to be one of the last of more than a dozen members of the Black Panthers, a black nationalist group, living in Cuba. Others have returned home to face long prison terms or died.
Cuba has regularly returned U.S. fugitives since 2006, but Washington says dozens remain in the Caribbean country.
(Writing by Kevin Gray; Editing by Alden Bentley)