TRENTON, N.J. (CN) - Convicted cop killer Sundiata Acoli was denied parole Tuesday by the New Jersey Supreme Court, which found that he never went before the full parole board as required by law.
The state high court's decision reversed a previous ruling by the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division, which had granted parole to Acoli, and urged "patience, exercising judicial restraint, and allowing the administrative process to reach its conclusion."
Acoli was convicted in 1974 of killing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster after Foerster and another police officer stopped Acoli and two others for speeding on the New Jersey Turnpike. Accounts differ on what happened, but the result is uncontested: Foerster was shot once in the shoulder by a passenger, Zayd Shakur, and then twice in the head with his own pistol.
Shakur was killed in the shootout and the other officer, James Harper, was wounded.
Another of the passengers in the car, Joanne Chesimard, now known as Asata Shakur, is believed to be living in Cuba. Chesimard, who was wounded in the shootout, was also convicted in the cop slaying but escaped prison and fled the country in 1979.
Acoli was apprehended for Foerster's murder after a 36-hour manhunt. He was sentenced to life plus 24 to 30 years in prison for the murder conviction and related assault and armed robbery charges.
Acoli has sought parole in 1993, 2004, and 2010, but because he never admitted to the crime, he has been denied each time. During his last parole hearing, a two-person parole board panel ruled that Acoli would likely commit a new crime if released from prison and denied his parole, according to court records.
In Tuesday's 4-1 split decision, New Jersey's high court overruled the state's appeals court - which had ruled that the parole board's denial was arbitrary and capricious and ordered Acoli's release - and upheld the parole denial, ruling that the appeals court "missed a step."
"In the performance of administrative law actions and determinations, process matters," Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote in the 25-page opinion. Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina did not participate in the ruling.
Under New Jersey law, hearing officers can recommend parole for most criminals but the rules are different for convicted murderers, who must go before the full parole board for a formal hearing. During those hearings, victims of the prisoner's crimes or the families of murder victims can testify.
Acoli and the American Civil Liberties Union argued that a hearing before the full parole board is required by law only in cases where the two-member panel grants parole, and that the state's appeals court could unilaterally grant parole in such cases.
However, the New Jersey Supreme Court begged to differ.
"It makes little administrative sense to expect the full board to conduct the equivalent of a full board review for release of a convicted murderer whenever a two-member panel withholds parole," LaVecchia wrote. "To convert every such appeal to a full-blown review would waste board personnel and fiscal resources."
Acoli, who is now 79 years old, was formerly known as Clark Edward Squire. He was a former member of the Black Panther Party and later joined the Black Liberation Army, a militant black power organization credited with various bombings, murders and robberies in the 1970s.
The convicted murderer, who in 1969 was arrested for plotting bombings and shootings at two New York City police stations, reportedly renounced the use of violence while in prison. Acoli claimed he "blacked out" after a bullet grazed his head during the 1973 shootout but also expressed remorse over Foerster's murder.
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Barry Albin wrote that the 2010 parole denial lacked evidential support and that a direct appeal to the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division after a two-member panel denies parole is correct under the law.
Further, Albin wrote, prison staff found Acoli had "adequate coping skills" and could have a positive transition into his community if paroled.
"Acoli committed the most heinous crime: the murder of a law enforcement officer - a crime, which, if committed today, would result in a life sentence without parole eligibility," Albin wrote. "But even the most despite inmate is entitled to the protection and enforcement of the law."
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