TRENTON, N.J. (CN) — Nearly 50 years after he and other members of the Black Liberation Army engaged in a fatal shootout with a New Jersey state trooper, Sundiata Acoli has been granted parole in a 3-2 decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court.
“Our order releasing Acoli on parole does not absolve him of the senseless crimes he committed almost fifty years ago,” Justice Barry Albin wrote for the majority Tuesday. “He is not released out of sympathy or compassion. He must be released because the statutory standards for granting parole have been met.”
Acoli, now 85, has been eligible for parole for nearly 30 years per his sentencing but has been denied several times prior to today. The high court found that Acoli, who suffers from dementia, is unlikely to commit another crime and is free to live with his daughter but noted it does not clear him of wrongdoing.
It was not until 1996, over 20 years after Acoli was convicted, that New Jersey passed a law that gives a life sentence without parole to anyone convicted of killing a member of law enforcement.
Justices Lee Solomon and Anne Patterson wrote in dissent that their colleagues in the majority overstepped the court's authority.
“In our view, the majority diminishes the role of the Parole Board by making this Court the finder of fact,” Solomon wrote.
Another point that rankles Solomon is that Acoli has never taken responsibility for the murder and continues to lie about the shooting that occurred at quarter to 1 a.m. on May 2, 1973.
“Not only does Acoli maintain that he did not commit the murder, but he continues to claim that Trooper Foerster shot him in the hand,” said Solomon. “Acoli continues to relay this version of events even though the ballistics evidence and police reports completely discredit his story.”
Albin meanwhile stressed the awareness of the majority that, if Acoli were convicted today, he would not be entitled to parole and that his crimes are “heinous.”
“However much we may abhor the terrible crimes that Acoli committed, he was sentenced and punished according to the law in effect at the time of his offenses — and he is protected by that same law, the law that we are dutybound to uphold, the law that gives him the right to be paroled today,” Albin wrote.
State Trooper Werner Foerster was killed after being shot four times, twice with his own gun and twice with Acoli’s gun, during a traffic stop with Acoli, who changed his name from Clark Squire, and two other members of the Black Liberation Army members. Zayd Malik Shakur, born James F. Costan, was killed in the firefight. Assata Shakur, previously JoAnne Chesimard, was also convicted for Foerster's murder but escaped a New Jersey prison in 1979 and fled to Cuba where she was given asylum by Fidel Castro and remains a fugitive.
Albin predicted that many will be critical of Tuesday's ruling but stressed that courts cannot “bow to public outrage.”
“Even the most scorned member of our society is entitled to be sheltered by the protection of the law, no matter how hard and vengeful the winds of public opinion may blow,” Albin wrote.
Indeed, there has already been pushback on the decision, with New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy issuing a statement.
“I am deeply disappointed that Sundiata Acoli, a man who murdered Trooper Werner Foerster in 1973, will be released from prison,” Murphy tweeted. “Our men and women in uniform are heroes, and anyone who would take the life of an officer on duty should remain behind bars until the end of their life.”
New Jersey Acting Attorney General Matthew Platkin also expressed disappointment with the decision and vowed to always fight for members of law enforcement.
Soffiyah Elijah, a lawyer who has advocated for Acoli’s release, praised the decision.
“It’s time now for Mr. Acoli to live the rest of his life in the loving care of his family and community,” Elijah said in a statement.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner did not participate in the case, and Albin was joined in the majority by Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis and temporary Justice Jose Fuentes.
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