Sundiata Acoli, a former Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army member who was convicted in the 1973 shooting death of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster, was freed Wednesday after nearly a half-century in prison.
Acoli, 85, imprisoned for his role in one of the Garden State’s most notorious crimes, left South Woods State Prison and moved in with his daughter in Brooklyn, his attorney, Bruce Afran, told Gothamist.
“He's very happy to be with his family,” Afran said. “He's with his grandson right now in fact, and spending time with him. And I think it's a wonderful thing he's experiencing but it's going to be somewhat difficult.”
Acoli, who was sentenced to life in prison, had been turned down for parole eight times since first becoming eligible in 1993. His release was set in motion by a May 10 ruling by a divided New Jersey Supreme Court. The only question was when he would be freed.
He's very happy to be with his family. He's with his grandson right now in fact, and spending time with him. And I think it's a wonderful thing he's experiencing but it's going to be somewhat difficult.
The court ruled 3-2 that the parole board had failed to determine that Acoli was likely to commit another crime if released and concluded that “Acoli’s record over more than a quarter century has been exemplary.”
Acoli has cardiac issues and is losing his vision, Afran said. He also suffers from memory loss. He added that Acoli is remorseful for his role in Foerster’s death.
"He was very movingly understanding of the tragedy that had happened. He even said to the [parole] board, 'I know Trooper Foerster's son lost his father. My children at least still have me even though I've been away,'" Afran said.
"He genuinely expressed this deep feeling of sympathy."
Afran said Acoli would not be made available for comment.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy wrote on Twitter at the time of the court ruling that he was “deeply disappointed” Acoli would be released. “Our men and women in uniform are heroes, and anyone who would take the life of an officer on duty should remain behind bars until the end of their life,” Murphy said.
In an earlier statement, New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association President Patrick Colligan had called the court’s decision, “a slap in the face to every officer."
A broken tail light
The tragedy unfolded May 2, 1973.
Acoli, formerly known as Clark Edward Squire, was in a car with two other members of the Black Liberation Army – James Costan and Joanne Chesimard – when they were pulled over on the Turnpike by Trooper James Harper for a broken tail light. All three in the car were armed.
Foerster arrived for back-up and frisked Acoli, finding a handgun. A gun battle ensued that left Harper injured and Foerster and Costan dead. Foerster had been shot four times though it’s still unclear who fired the fatal shots, court records say.
Acoli has maintained that he lost consciousness after being grazed by a bullet during the shootout and doesn’t recall what happened that night, court records show.
Chesimard, who now goes by Assata Shakur, escaped prison and fled to Cuba. She remains on the FBI’s most wanted list.
The question before the high court wasn’t Acoli's guilt or innocence; it focused on whether the parole board had followed the law in its assessment of Acoli.
“This is a decision of humanity and a recognition of the importance of the rule of law,” Afran said after the high court’s ruling. “The killing of a police officer is always something we abhor but the court here has said that when a man has demonstrated that he has changed and he has put behind him that history, we must now give him the benefit of the rule of law.”
'Rule of law requires'
Acoli’s lawyers said their client hadn’t had any infractions for the last 25 years of his imprisonment, completed over 100 programs and counseling sessions, and taught a course to younger inmates about “rational thinking and emotional control.”
The Supreme Court wrote that the parole board was entitled to deference “but not blind deference” and had failed to show what crimes it feared Acoli would commit at his age.
“However despised Acoli may be in the eyes of many because of the notoriety of his crime, he too is entitled to the protection of the law — and to the fair and impartial administration of justice. That is what our commitment to the rule of law requires,” Justice Barry Albin wrote.
Acting Attorney General Matt Platkin, a Democrat whose office opposed Acoli’s release, reiterated those objections in an earlier statement. When Acoli was convicted, state law still allowed people who killed police officers the possibility of parole. That no longer is the case.
Will try to speak out
Afran has described his client as “committed to the violent revolutionary movement back in the '60s and early '70s,” but who long ago abandoned any intention to seek change except for peaceful means. And his life in prison for the last 40 years demonstrates that.”
Afran said Acoli would continue to be an activist, “to the extent his age and health allow him to, and I’m fairly confident he will try to speak out on issues.”
Rosa Foerster, the slain trooper's widow, moved to Florida years ago. Someone who identified himself as Foerster’s nephew and a Florida sheriff’s department sergeant wrote a reflection on Foerster’s Officer Down Memorial Page, commenting in part: “I guess a person that is willing to kill a New Jersey State Trooper out of pure hatred doesn't present a danger to the public? I miss you and continue to think of you often.”