By Caren Chesler, Washington Post, March 13, 2021
A former member of the Black Panther Party, who went to prison when he was 36 and is now 84, will go before New Jersey’s Supreme Court this Fall to try to win his release, arguing that he has been a model prisoner and eligible for parole for a quarter-century but has been repeatedly denied because his crime involved the killing of a state trooper.
Sundiata Acoli, born Clark Edward Squire, is serving a life sentence for the May 2, 1973, murder of Trooper Werner Foerster during a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike. Acoli was driving just after midnight when another trooper, James Harper, stopped him for a defective taillight. Acoli and his two passengers, Assata Shakur, born JoAnne Chesimard, and Zayd Malik Shakur, born James Costan, were members of the Black Liberation Army.
Harper called for backup and was joined by Foerster, who discovered an ammunition magazine for an automatic pistol on Acoli, according to news reports of the trial and his appeals. A gun battle erupted. Foerster was shot four times, twice in the head by his own service weapon, and Harper was wounded.
The three Black Liberation Army members drove five miles south on the Turnpike and pulled over. Assata Shakur was quickly arrested, and Zayd Malik Shakur was found dead near the car. Acoli fled into nearby woods, where he was captured about 30 hours later.
Both Acoli and Shakur, in separate trials, were convicted of the murder of Foerster.
Shakur has said she was shot and wounded with her hands up and couldn’t have killed Foerster. Acoli said at the time that he was hit by a bullet, blacked out and couldn’t remember what happened.
A jury convicted Acoli of first-degree murder in 1974 and sentenced him to life with the possibility of parole after 25 years. With prison credits, his parole date was pushed up to 1993 but he was denied. And he’s been denied parole eight times in all.
Shakur escaped prison in 1979 and fled to Cuba where she was granted political asylum.
Attorneys for Acoli say nearly 50 years in jail is too long. Last year, their client contracted covid-19 and was hospitalized, losing 20 pounds, they said. He also has hearing problems and suffers from early-stage dementia.
“You can have someone elderly who may still be dangerous in some rare cases, but that is not this man. I mean, he has not had a single problem of any kind in prison for 25 years,” said Bruce Afran, Acoli’s attorney. He noted that for years, the prison system — Acoli is in a federal prison in Maryland though he is technically a state prisoner — has trusted Acoli enough to allow him to teach a course to young inmates on avoiding recidivism.
Yet Afran said each time Acoli has been reviewed by the parole board, he has been denied on the same pretexts: He hasn’t done enough psychological counseling; he doesn’t fully admit to his crime; or he hasn’t adequately apologized for it.
“It’s virtually the same words every time,” Afran said. “Frankly, the reason they’re denying him parole is because a state trooper was killed. I can think of no other reason for this treatment.”
The New Jersey Parole Board refused to discuss details of the Acoli case beyond confirming that he had previously been denied parole. Tony Ciavolella, a board spokesman, said, “Denials of his parole were decided upon impartially, fairly, and . . . in accordance with statutory and administrative regulations.”
Acoli was close to winning his freedom in 2014, when after taking the parole board to court, a state appellate panel ruled he should be set free. The court cited his good behavior since 1996 and said the parole board ignored a psychologist’s 2010 testimony that Acoli had expressed regret and remorse for his involvement in the trooper’s death. The psychologist also said Acoli had a “low to moderate risk” of reoffending.
But the state Attorney General’s office contested the appellate court’s decision. The case was sent back to the board, which again denied Acoli’s request, but when the case went back before the appellate panel a second time, there were two new judges hearing the case and the panel ruled 2-1 that Acoli should remain in prison.
Acoli is now appealing that second appellate decision, and his case is expected to go before the Supreme Court later this year. The New Jersey Attorney General’s office declined to comment and the state police did not respond to a request for comment.
Joseph J. Russo, Deputy Public Defender in the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender’s Appellate Section, said Acoli isn’t the only inmate being denied parole repeatedly, in apparent violation of state law. New Jersey’s Parole Act of 1979 contains a presumption of release at an incarcerated person’s first parole eligibility date. Parole data the Public Defender’s Office obtained from the parole board through an open records request shows that 91% of those serving life sentences are denied parole at their first eligibility date.
“This is in direct contravention of the presumption of release,” Russo said, adding, “Sundiata’s case is a glaring example of the need for parole reform in New Jersey and throughout the United States.”
The data Russo’s office received showed that of the 445 inmates who went before the parole board from 2012 to 2019 — all of whom had been sentenced to life for violent crimes — 39 were released. The remaining 406 inmates, 91 percent, were denied parole. And of those denied, 30 percent were told not to apply again for four to nine years, while 22 percent were told to wait 10 years. By contrast, in New York, inmates are statutorily allowed to apply for parole every two years.
There was no information on race in the released parole data, but in New Jersey “the incarceration rate for black people is twelve times the white incarceration rate, the highest disparity of any state in the nation,” according to the New Jersey Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission.
The Parole Board said the claim that 91 percent of parole cases resulted in denials is “inaccurate,” though officials did not explain how.
“All New Jersey State Parole Board decisions are made in accordance with statutory laws and properly implemented through the Administrative Code of New Jersey,” said Ciavolella.
The organization representing former New Jersey state troopers said it does not believe Acoli is ready to be released. Al Della Fave, spokesman for the New Jersey Association of Former Troopers, said that in its December 2019 decision, the New Jersey Appellate Court affirmed the parole board’s finding that Acoli, “lacked insight into his criminal behavior, denied key aspects of his crimes and minimized his criminal conduct and anti-social behavior.”
“The Former Troopers Association of New Jersey finds it is extremely difficult to believe that in less than one-years’ time, Inmate Acoli has miraculously found remorse, accepted rehabilitation, or even offered a sincere admission of his actions in the inhumane murder of Trooper Foerster,” Della Fave said.
Those who support Acoli describe him as compassionate and brilliant. He graduated high school in Texas at 15, earned a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics by 19, and then landed a job with NASA at Edwards Air Force Base in California as a computer analyst. Around 1963, he moved to New York City, where he got involved in the civil rights movement and later moved to the South to help register Black people to vote. After Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Acoli’s ideas grew more radical, according to one of his attorneys, and in 1968, he joined the Black Panther Party.
“If you were a Black person living through the late ’60s and early ’70s, it wasn’t a difficult decision,” said Soffiyah Elijah, an attorney who has known Acoli for three decades. “Thousands and thousands of young Black people joined the Black Panther Party at that time.”
Elijah said shortly after joining the Black Panthers, Acoli was approached by members of law enforcement and asked to become an informant. He declined. A year later, he was rounded up in a predawn arrest with other leaders of the Black Panthers from Harlem and charged with conspiring to bomb department stores, railway and subway stations, police stations and the Bronx Botanical Gardens. Known as the Panther 21 case, most of those charged remained in jail for two years before trial. When the case was finally heard, a jury acquitted them in less than two hours. The shooting on the Turnpike occurred two years later.