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Sundiata Acoli granted parole by New Jersey Supreme Court after 49 years
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An 85-year-old convicted murderer who had been repeatedly denied parole was freed by a divided New Jersey Supreme Court on Tuesday, 49 years after he was involved in the shooting death of a US soldier. State.

Sundiata Acoli, a former Black Panther who was part of the ultranationalist Black Liberation Army, was found guilty of murdering New Jersey State Police Officer Werner Foerster in an altercation that began with a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike.

He was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years and became eligible for release in 1993 for good behavior. He appeared before the parole board four times and was denied after each appearance.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and the law enforcement community have strongly opposed granting Acoli freedom, and the parole board has repeatedly done the same, pointing out inconsistencies in his account of the murder and the fact that he said he passed out. and does not remember shooting Foerster.

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But the New Jersey high court disagreed, saying the parole board’s work was not to determine who Acoli was at the time of the murder but rather who he has become. The 3-to-2 decision cited the Parole Act 1979, which states that prisoners must be released when eligible unless there is a preponderance of evidence showing a substantial likelihood that they will commit another crime.

The court said the parole board seemed unaware of Acoli’s renunciation of violence, two decades without an offense, the completion of several job training programs and counseling sessions, and his advanced age. “It is difficult to imagine what else could have persuaded the Commission that Acoli did not present a substantial likelihood of recidivism,” the majority wrote.

Bruce Afran, Acoli’s lead attorney, said his client was behind bars because his crime involved the murder of a policeman. Although tragic, he said, this fact does not justify depriving someone of their statutory rights.

“There is a lot of resentment over the fact that a policeman was killed. And that is what has caused this delay over these years,” Afran said. “This decision says that when someone is eligible for parole, the board must release them unless there is a real factual basis to show that the inmate cannot be trusted to return to the community. “

Murphy said in a statement he was “deeply disappointed” by the ruling, noting that a New Jersey law enacted in 1996 requires anyone convicted of murdering an on-duty police officer to be sentenced to life in prison. without the possibility of parole.

“I deeply wish this law was in place when Acoli was convicted in 1974,” Murphy said. “Our men and women in uniform are heroes, and anyone who takes the life of a serving officer should remain behind bars until the end of their life.”

Acting Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin and Col. Patrick J. Callahan, the state police superintendent, also denounced the court’s decision. Callahan said he called Foerster’s widow after the decision and she was as devastated and disappointed as he was.

“The release of Acoli is not only an injustice to the Foerster family and the men and women who serve in the New Jersey State Police, but to all law enforcement officers in this country who dedicate their lives to the safety of the citizens we are sworn to protect,” Callahan said. “While we can’t change the laws that were in place when this murder happened, I was hoping that understanding the risks law enforcement officers face on a daily basis would have helped keep Acoli in jail for the rest. of his life.”

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Joseph Russo, first deputy public defender with the state Public Defender’s Office, said the court’s decision means the New Jersey parole board can no longer ignore what are called the age-crime curve — the fact that as inmates approach the later stages of their lives, the likelihood of them committing a crime decreases significantly. Nor can the commission downplay or ignore an exemplary criminal record and positive psychological reports.

“The bottom line: the board, in the future, cannot ‘select’ selective parts of the case to justify a pre-determined conclusion to deny parole solely on the basis of a hyperfocus on the underlying crimes”, Russo said. He then quoted Raymond Brown, a civil rights attorney who, in court argument, said the parole board essentially “froze Mr. Acoli in 1973.”

Acoli, formerly known as Clark Edward Squire, was 36 on May 2, 1973, when State Trooper James Harper arrested him for a faulty taillight just after midnight. Its two passengers – Assata Shakur, née JoAnne Chesimard, and Zayd Malik Shakur, née James Costan – were also members of the Black Liberation Army.

Harper called for reinforcements and was joined by Foerster, who found an ammunition store for an automatic pistol on Acoli, according to reports from Acoli’s lawsuit and appeals. A shootout broke out. Foerster was shot four times, twice in the head by his own service weapon, and Harper was injured.

Acoli and Shakur, in separate trials, were convicted of Foerster’s murder; it’s still unclear who actually pulled the trigger. Shakur fled to Cuba and is still one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives.

Those who support Acoli say he has already paid his debt and poses no public threat. He suffers from early stage dementia, was hospitalized last year with covid-19 and plans to live with his daughter in New York when he is released from prison.

“Now is the time for Mr. Acoli to live out the rest of his life under the loving care of his family and community,” said civil rights lawyer Soffiyah Elijah, one of Acoli’s leading advocates.

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