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After 49 Years in Prison for a Murder in Which He Didn’t Pull the Trigger, Former Black Liberation Army Member Sundiata Acoli Wins Parole

On May 10, 2022, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed a state parole board decision and granted release to Sundiata Acoli, whose involvement with a radical group that advocated overthrow of the U.S. government was repeatedly cited to keep him incarcerated for nearly a half century. In doing so, the Court explicitly rejected arguments that Acoli, who is now 85 and suffers dementia, was likely to re-offend.

Born Clark Edward Squire, Acoli was driving on the New Jersey Turnpike with two fellow members of the Black Liberation Army, Assata and Zayd Shakur—also known as JoAnne D. Chesimard and James Costan—when the car was stopped around 1:00 a.m. on May 2, 1973, by New Jersey State Trooper James Harper, who allegedly observed a broken taillight. When fellow Trooper Werner Foerster arrived on the scene, he frisked Acoli and discovered a loaded gun.

That’s when Assata Shakur opened fire with her own gun, striking Harper in the shoulder. A shootout ensued. Zayd Shakur joined in, using another weapon. Acoli was wrestling Foerster for the gun when Harper fired a shot that grazed Acoli’s head, and he lost consciousness. When he came to, Acoli fled with both Shakurs, leaving Harper wounded and Foerster dying of his wounds.

Police caught up with the car about five miles away and arrested Assata Shakur. Zayd Shakur died at the scene of his earlier wounds. Acoli fled into the woods and was caught just over a day later. A jury convicted him of Foester’s murder in 1974.

He first became eligible for parole in 1993, but his petitions were never successful, even though as the Court noted in its ruling, his record for at least the past 25 of the 49 years he has been imprisoned has been “exemplary.”

Acoli has consistently maintained he doesn’t know who fired the fatal shot at Foerster, but when pressed to answer during a 2016 hearing, he told the parole board that it was probably Harper. Nevertheless, Acoli concluded that hearing by telling the board, “I deeply regret the actions that transpired.”

The board construed his speculation as changing his testimony and denied him parole.

Acoli appealed, but a divided panel of appellate court judges affirmed the decision, bringing the case to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in January 2022. There it was noted that, under the law as it existed when he was sentenced, N.J.S.A. 30:4-123.53, Acoli had a presumptive right to release which the board could overcome only by demonstrating the “substantial likelihood” he would commit another offense.

Acoli had marshaled for his hearing an impressive list of accomplishments that were all mitigating factors under a related law, N.J.A.C. 10A:71-3.11(b), including 120 academic courses and extensive counseling, good evaluations for prison work and from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, as well as decades without citation for a disciplinary infraction.

The Court decided the parole board “merely paid lip service” to all of that, ignoring as well as Acoli’s generally positive psychological evaluations and advanced age. As a result, the Court said, the board failed to prove a “substantial likelihood” Acoli would re-offend and reversed the decision.

The ruling was reached over the dissent of two justices, Lee Solomon and Anne M. Patterson, who chastised the Court’s majority for not affording the parole board the “substantial deference to which it is entitled.” See: Acoli v. N.J. State Parole Bd., 2022 N.J. LEXIS 410.

The Court’s decision also drew criticism from two of the state’s top leaders, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and Attorney General Matthew Platkin (D), who noted that under current law, “if an individual murders a law enforcement officer on duty, he is never eligible for parole.”

“I profoundly wish this law had been in place when Acoli was sentenced in 1974,” Murphy agreed.

Acoli’s attorney, First Assistant New Jersey Public Defender Joseph J. Russo, applauded the Court for recognizing the “overwhelming evidence that Mr. Acoli is rehabilitated, deeply remorseful and deserving of release.”

Acoli plans to live with his daughter and grandchildren in Brooklyn.

Assata Shakur, who was also convicted of Foester’s murder in 1977, has been living in exile in Cuba since she escaped prison in 1979. In 2013 she became the first woman to make the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists.  

Additional sources: New York Times, Washington Post

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Related legal case

Acoli v. N.J. State Parole Bd.