Lolita Lebron, 90

Lolita Lebron, jailed for gun attack at U.S. Capitol in 1954, dies at 90

Capitol police hold Lolita Lebron and two others in custody on March 1, 1954, after they opened fire from the House gallery.
Capitol police hold Lolita Lebron and two others in custody on March 1, 1954, after they opened fire from the House gallery. (Associated Press)
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2010

Lolita Lebron, a Puerto Rican nationalist known to some as a terrorist and to others as a near-mythic freedom fighter for her violent attack on the U.S. Capitol more than a half-century ago, died Aug. 1 at a hospital in San Juan of complications from respiratory disease. She was 90.

Ms. Lebron was called both fanatical and fearless for her efforts to draw attention to the cause of independence for her home island, claimed by the United States as spoils after the Spanish-American War and made an American commonwealth in 1952.

LeBron bought a ticket from New York to Washington on March 1, 1954. She and three fellow nationalists lunched at Union Station and then walked to the Capitol. They made their way to the House gallery. A security guard asked whether they were carrying cameras; they were not.

But they did have pistols. And in a crusade for Puerto Rico's independence that Ms. Lebron saw as no different from the uprising by America's 13 colonies against England in the 18th century, the four nationalists opened fire in the House chambers as more than 240 members of Congress debated an immigration bill.

"Viva Puerto Rico libre!" Ms. Lebron screamed. Chaos swirled as she unfurled a Puerto Rican flag. Five congressmen were struck by bullets, including 35-year-old Alvin Bentley, a Republican from Michigan who was hit in the chest.

Rep. James Van Zandt (R-Pa.) and a gallery spectator managed to wrestle away the assailants' guns. Arrested and handcuffed, the four nationalists were photographed outside the Capitol in an image splashed across newspaper front pages.

In the photograph, a striking Ms. Lebron wears a set jaw and a stylish skirt and jacket. She had expected to die that day, and police found a note in her purse along with a tube of lipstick and Bromo-Seltzer pills.

"My life I give for the freedom of my country," the note read. "The United States of America are betraying the sacred principles of mankind in their continuous subjugation of my country."

'I am a revolutionary'

The shooting and its aftermath captivated Washington for weeks. Ms. Lebron and her fellow attackers had unleashed 29 bullets, leaving scars still visible at the Capitol, but none of the five injured congressmen died.

Ms. Lebron sat quietly during most of the trial, breaking her silence to tell the jury in a fiery 20-minute speech that she was "being crucified for the freedom of my country." She was sentenced to more than 50 years in prison.

In a move widely suspected to have been part of a prisoner swap to release CIA agents jailed in Cuba, President Jimmy Carter granted clemency to Ms. Lebron, two of her co-conspirators and a nationalist who had tried to kill President Harry S. Truman.

Released in 1979 after serving 25 years in prison, Ms. Lebron embarked on a tour of Puerto Rican population centers in the United States. She was also received in Havana as a guest of President Fidel Castro.

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