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After almost 50 years, former Black Panther Sundiata Acoli to be released from prison

Sundiata Acoli, a former Black Panther member who was convicted of murder in 1974 and has been denied parole multiple times, will now be released from prison. The New Jersey supreme court has granted parole to Acoli, ruling that he was no longer a threat to the public.

85-year-old Acoli has been serving a life sentence for the 1973 murder of a New Jersey state trooper during a shootout in which Assata Shakur, the self-exiled aunt of Tupac Shakur, was also arrested. Shakur escaped in 1979 and fled to Cuba, where she was granted political asylum. Acoli had been eligible for parole since 1992 but had been denied so many times.

In the 1970s when the Black liberation fighters’ struggle was at its peak in the United States, it gave birth to militant groups like Philadelphia-based MOVE founded by John Africa in 1972 and the Black Panther Party founded in late October 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. The Black Panthers’ militant wing was called the Black Liberation Army.

Acoli, a member of the Black Liberation Army, was on May 2, 1973, driving just after midnight when a state trooper, James Harper, stopped him for a “defective taillight”. Acoli was then in the vehicle with two others — Assata Shakur and Zayd Malik Shakur — who were also members of the Black Liberation Army. Harper was joined by another trooper, Werner Foerster, at the scene. Foerster then found an ammunition magazine for an automatic pistol on Acoli. A shootout ensued; Foerster died in the process and Harper was wounded.

Assata Shakur was arrested while Zayd Malik Shakur was found dead near the car. Acoli fled but was caught some hours later. Acoli and Assata Shakur were convicted of the murder of Foerster in separate trials. Acoli said he did not remember what happened as he passed out after being hit by a bullet. In 1974, Acoli was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 25 years. Acoli became eligible for parole in 1992 but was not allowed to take part in his own parole hearing.

All in all, he has been denied parole eight times. His lawyer, Bruce Afran, said each time he is denied, the reason given is the same — “he hasn’t done enough psychological counseling; he doesn’t fully admit to his crime, or he hasn’t adequately apologized for it,” according to the Post. In 2014, a state appellate panel ruled that Acoli should be released, citing good behavior since 1996. The state Attorney General’s office however contested and the case was sent back to the board. Again, it denied Acoli’s request. Acoli started appealing that decision.

After being repeatedly denied parole, New Jersey’s Supreme Court has now voted 3-2 to overturn a parole board ruling, according to BBC. Acoli’s prison record has been “exemplary”, the judges said, adding that he had completed 120 courses while in prison, received positive evaluations from prison officials, and participated in counseling. The parole board had “lost sight that its mission largely was to determine the man Acoli had become”, the judges said.

Activists now hope that Acoli’s release would bring attention to other elderly members of the Black Panthers who are still imprisoned in the U.S


Appeals court denies Sundiata Acoli’s latest bid for parole


A man convicted in the 1973 killing of a New Jersey State Police trooper should not receive parole anytime soon, an appellate panel has concluded.

Sundiata Acoli, now 82, was convicted along with Joanne Chesimard in the shooting death of Trooper Werner Foerster and wounding of Trooper James Harper during a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike in East Brunswick.

A three-judge appellate panel affirmed the state parole board’s denial of Acoli’s latest bid for parole, with one judge dissenting.

Formerly known as Clark Edward Squire, Acoli was sentenced in 1974 to life plus 24 to 30 years in prison for his crimes. Chesimard escaped from prison in 1979 and fled to Cuba. She remains on the FBI’s most wanted list.

Acoli was denied parole in 1994 and 2004, with the parole board citing “continued anti-social behavior” and continued denial of the evidence presented at his trial.

After a two-member parole board panel denied him again in 2010, Acoli appealed and the state appellate court ruled in 2014 that he was wrongly denied parole and ordered his release.

The state attorney general and parole board appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court ruling in 2016 and ordered that he receive a hearing before the full parole board.

While Acoli previously stated that he blacked out during the confrontation with the troopers because of a graze wound from a bullet and didn’t remember how Foerster died, he speculated during this new hearing that another trooper “probably” shot Foerster with a “friendly fire shot.”

Acoli and Chesimard were members of the Black Panthers and the militant Black Liberation Army at the time of the shooting.

Trooper James Harper stopped their car for a broken tail light just after midnight on May 2, 1973. Harper called Foerster for backup and Foerster discovered Acoli had a gun, according to previous reports.

During a gun battle, Chesimard shot and wounded Harper and Foerster was shot when Acoli’s gun fired during a struggle between the men. The prosecution argued that Chesimard then took Foerster’s gun and shot him twice in the head. The defense argued that Chesimard was too badly injured from her own gunshot wounds to have killed Foerster.

A third man in the car with Acoli and Chesimard, James Costan, was shot and killed at the scene.

In seeking parole, Acoli claimed he led a crime-free life for about 40 years and took “full responsibility” for Foerster’s death. The parole board didn’t buy it, though, calling it “disturbing” that he would raise the friendly fire theory — which is not supported by ballistic evidence — while also claiming he took responsibility for the crime.

The parole board found there remained a “substantial likelihood” he would commit new crimes if released from prison. His bid for parole was denied and a 15-year period of parole ineligibility was set.

In reviewing his appeal of that decision, the appellate court ruled Friday that the parole board’s decision was reasonable and supported by “substantial credible evidence.”

Appellate Judge Garry S. Rothstadt, disagreed with his colleagues’ decision. In a dissenting option, Rothstadt said Acoli had been a model prisoner for decades and that the parole denial included no evidence that he was likely to commit new crimes if released.

He said Acoli’s new speculation about how Foerster was shot doesn’t change the fact that he has expressed remorse for his part in the crime.

Acoli, one of the state’s oldest and longest-serving inmates, is currently housed at a federal prison in Maryland.