One of the Garden State’s oldest, most notorious inmates is headed for parole following a ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court last week.
Sundiata Acoli, 85, a former member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, was convicted in the 1973 shooting death of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster.
The order to parole Acoli after nearly 50 years behind bars drew swift rebukes from many quarters, including the New Jersey State Police Benevolent Association and Gov. Phil Murphy, who said convicted cop killers should never go free.
Weekend Edition host David Furst discussed the case with Colleen O'Dea, senior writer and projects editor for NJ Spotlight News. Their conversation has been lightly edited for content.
Colleen, what happened on May 2, 1973, the day trooper Forester was killed? And what role did Acoli play in his death?
As you mentioned, Acoli was a member of the Black Liberation Army. That group was known in the 1970s for carrying out a series of bombings and bank robberies, and killing a number of police officers.
On that day, Acoli was in a car with two other members of the Black Liberation Army, Joanne Chesimard and James Costan. They were on the New Jersey turnpike when they were stopped by Trooper James Harper for a broken tail light. Trooper Werner Foerster arrived as backup. Acoli got out of the car to speak with the troopers. He was frisked by Foerster. Harper approached the car. Suddenly, there was a shot – where, as we understand it, Chesimard fired. And Acoli tried to get the gun away from Foerster.
Now there's a full shootout on the turnpike. What happens next is somewhat in dispute. Acoli says he blacked out after suffering a graze wound to the head. When he regained consciousness, Foerster was shot dead on the ground near him. Acoli fled the scene with Costan, who died of his injuries, and with Chesimard, who was wounded but survived.
Acoli was found guilty in the shooting death of Foerster and wounding of Harper. He got a sentence of life plus up to 30 years.
This shooting still stirs so much emotion all these years later. Talk about why that’s the case.
Part of it is because police killings always draw a lot of emotion. The police, they kind of form a family and they certainly remember their own. And this was the killing of a state trooper. They're the elite police force in the state of New Jersey. I also think it stirs emotions because Joanne Chesimard, the other person who survived the shootout and who was convicted, did not serve her time. She was in prison for about six years after the shooting, but she escaped, and she is believed still to be living in Cuba, where she received asylum.
Now last week's court ruling didn't concern Acoli’s guilt or innocence. The state parole board, once again, had denied parole to Acoli. The state Supreme Court reversed that decision. What did the court say the parole board got wrong?
Acoli was first eligible for parole in 1993 and had been denied several times. The law that was in effect at the time of his crime held that anyone, Acoli included, was presumptively entitled to be released when they became eligible unless the parole board could show a substantial likelihood that the person would re-offend. A majority of the Supreme Court – and the court was divided on this – found that the board did not meet that burden with Acoli.
The [New Jersey] Supreme Court called the reasons the parole board gave in denying his parole contrived, and said that the board acted arbitrarily and capriciously. Justice Barry Albin, who wrote the decision, said the board ignored Acoli’s exemplary record over the last quarter century. He completed education programs. He served as a mentor to younger inmates, and his health was failing. He's 85. He's in the early stages of dementia, we're told, and Acoli’s still feeling the effects of a COVID-19 infection.
Under current New Jersey law, anyone convicted of killing a police officer is now ineligible for parole. But how does the Acoli case fit in with the bigger issue of what NJ Spotlight News has referred to as the “geriatric problem” in the state's prison system?
The state’s prison population is getting older and older. There was a time when about 11% of the inmates were age 50 or older; that figure is now up to 20%. There are about 500 people aged 65 and older, and 2,600 at least age 50. They suffer from ailments ranging from diabetes to heart disease. There are mental health issues. There's cancer. Prisons were not designed for people with serious health issues. And we've heard stories about people who were denied basic care. And it's more expensive to care for older and ill inmates. On top of that, the studies have shown that the risk of someone re-offending drops precipitously the older they get.
For someone of Acoli’s age, the estimate was like maybe 4% or less that he might re-offend. So advocates question, why keep these people in prison? New Jersey is now considering a bill that would provide geriatric parole to inmates, age 60 or older, who have served at least part of their sentence. But this, again, would exclude those who've committed the most serious acts. Yet studies show that the severity of a crime committed doesn't really influence the likelihood of the person re-offending.
Do we know when Acoli will be freed? And what has Trooper Forester's family had to say about last week’s ruling?
So we don't know yet about his release. He is expected to live with his daughter in Brooklyn. State officials say they're now kind of working to figure out the timeline to make that happen.
In terms of the family of Trooper Foerster, someone who identified himself as his 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.”