New Jersey’s highest court has ordered the parole of Sundiata Acoli, a former member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army who was convicted in the 1973 shooting death of a state trooper.
The 3-2 ruling on Tuesday overturns a decision by the State Parole Board to deny parole for Acoli – who is now 85 and suffering from dementia – his supporters say. The court wrote that the board’s denial “is not supported by substantial evidence in the record or by a reasonable weighing of the relevant factors.”
The justices said the parole board did not determine that Acoli, who was convicted of murder, was likely to commit another crime if released.
Acoli received a life sentence after being convicted in the May 2, 1973 shooting death of State Trooper Werner Foerster after being pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Since becoming eligible for parole in 1993, the parole board has denied his release eight times. His lawyers appealed his case to the state's Supreme Court, arguing he’s been a model prisoner and his health was deteriorating.
No 'blind deference'
The matter before the high court wasn’t whether Acoli was guilty or innocent; the question before the panel was whether the parole board had followed the law in denying Acoli parole.
“This is a decision of humanity and a recognition of the importance of the rule of law,” Acoli’s lead lawyer Bruce Afran told Gothamist. “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.”
In court papers, Acoli’s lawyers said their client hasn’t had any infractions for the last 25 years and had completed over 100 programs and counseling sessions and even taught a course to younger inmates about “rational thinking and emotional control.”
On Tuesday, 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 in Tuesday’s decision.
In a statement on Twitter, Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said he was “deeply disappointed” in the court’s decision. “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.
Acting Attorney General Matt Platkin, a Democrat whose office has opposed Acoli’s release, echoed those sentiments.
This is a decision of humanity and a recognition of the importance of the rule of law. 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
“Under New Jersey law today, if an individual murders a law enforcement officer on duty he is never eligible for parole — a decision that reflects the heinous nature of that crime. I will always stand up for the safety and well-being of our law enforcement officers, including the brave Troopers of the New Jersey State Police,” he said in a statement.
When Acoli was convicted, state law still allowed people who killed police officers the possibility of parole.
A broken tail light
In May 1973, Acoli, formerly known as Clark Edward Squire, was in the car with two other members of the Black Liberation Army – James Costan and Joanne Chesimard – when they were pulled over on the Turnpike for a broken tail light by Trooper James Harper.
All three were armed with handguns.
Trooper Foerster arrived for back-up and frisked Acoli, finding a handgun on him. A gun battle ensued that left one trooper injured and Foerster and Costan dead. Foerster was 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 transpired 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.
"Today's court decision just reminds us all that is wrong with our courts," New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association President Patrick Colligan said in a statement. "We stand with our brothers and sisters in the New Jersey State Police in outrage that during police week the courts release a cop killer. This is a slap in the face to every officer."
Attorney Afran said the issue isn't what happened nearly a half-century ago.
“It is never in parole cases about the crime, it is about who the person has become,” Afran said. “And although Mr. Acoli was committed to the violent revolutionary movement back in the '60s and early '70s, he's 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 was previously sick with COVID-19 and hospitalized because of it; he also has cardiac issues and is losing his vision and suffering from memory loss.
“He is a man who is ready for retirement and the absurd idea of the parole board that somehow he's going to lead a violent revolution when he's in declining health at 85 years of age demonstrates the bias the board had against this man,” he said.
Afran said Acoli will live with his daughter in Brooklyn and will likely be released in the coming weeks.
Rosa Foerster, the slain trooper's widow, moved to Florida years ago. Neither she nor other family members could be reached for comment.