NJ judges allow man who murdered trooper in 1973 to live out life as free man
TRENTON – The state Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the parole of a Black Liberation Army activist convicted for the 1973 murder of a state trooper on the New Jersey Turnpike.
The Supreme Court voted 3-2 to reverse the State Parole Board’s latest of eight denials of the release of Sundiata Acoli, 85. It found that there is not a substantial likelihood that, if released, Acoli would commit another crime.
“Our order releasing Acoli on parole does not absolve him of the senseless crimes he committed almost fifty years ago,” the court said.
“He is not released out of sympathy or compassion. He must be released because the statutory standards for granting parole have been met. Neither the Parole Board nor this Court has discretion to suspend the law in a special case.”
The court’s opinion was written by Justice Barry Albin and joined by Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis and Appellate Judge Jose Fuentes, who is temporarily assigned to the court due to a vacancy.
Acoli will be released to live with his daughter and grandchildren in their home, in accordance with his parole plan.
Acoli has been living in federal prisons for 49 years. The court said his record has been exemplary for more than 25 years, although early in his term he tried to escape in 1979 and committed other minor infractions in the mid-1990s.
“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.”
But Gov. Phil Murphy said Acoli murdered Trooper Werner Foerster “in cold blood” and that he is “deeply disappointed” by the ruling.
“In 1996, Gov. (Christie) Whitman signed a law ensuring that anyone who murders an officer on duty will receive life in prison without the possibility of parole, and I profoundly wish this law had been in place when Acoli was sentenced in 1974,” Murphy said. “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.”
Col. Patrick Callahan, the State Police superintendent, said he spoke with Foerster's widow and that she is "as devastated and disappointed by this decision as I am."
"Acoli's release is not only an injustice for the Foerster family and the men and women who serve within the New Jersey State Police but to every law enforcement officer in this country who dedicates their lives for the safety of the citizens we are sworn to protect," Callahan said. "Last Monday, 49 years ago to the day, Trooper Foerster was not given a second chance when he was murdered on the New Jersey Turnpike, leaving behind a widow and 3-year-old son."
Shooting on the Turnpike
Acoli – then known as Clark Edward Squire, before changing his name while in prison – was driving with two other members of the Black Liberation Army, James Costan and Joanne Chesimard, up the Turnpike on May 2, 1973, when they were stopped by a Trooper James Harper for a broken taillight.
Trooper Werner Foerster arrived shortly thereafter to provide backup. While frisking Acoli, Foerster discovered ammunition and a pistol. Chesimard – now known as Assata Shakur – shot Harper, and a shootout ensued in which Foerster was killed while fighting with Acoli for control of Acoli’s gun.
Foerster was shot four times, twice in the head with his own revolver and twice by Acoli’s gun.
Shakur escaped from state prison in 1979 and is believed to be living in Cuba.
Justice Lee Solomon wrote a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justice Anne Patterson. Chief Justice Stuart Rabner did not participate in the case; no reason was given, but Rabner served as the state attorney general for a portion of the time the state opposed Acoli’s release.
The dissenting justices said the Supreme Court should have deferred to the Parole Board, saying it had not abused its discretion.
“By disregarding the Parole Board’s reasoned decision, the majority fails to uphold our longstanding precedent to accord the fact-finder substantial deference,” said the dissenting opinion. “In our view, the majority diminishes the role of the Parole Board by making this Court the finder of fact. We consider that decision a disrespect to our fundamental principles of appellate review and a grave injustice to the victim, State Trooper Werner Foerster, and his family.”
'The law in effect at the time of his offense'
Acoli was convicted in 1974 and sentenced to life plus 24 to 30 years in prison. But under the law in effect at that time, which was appealed effective in 1997, he became eligible for parole in 1993.
“Despite Acoli’s forty-nine years of imprisonment, his many years of good behavior, and his expressions of remorse, we understand that no punishment will right the wrong of Trooper Foerster’s death, requite the loss to Trooper Foerster’s family, or assuage their pain,” the court said. “Trooper Harper too is left with lifelong psychic and physical scars from his wounding. We acknowledge that if Acoli were convicted today of the crimes he committed in 1973, he would be condemned to serve life imprisonment without the hope of parole.
“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,” it said.
“We are not unmindful of the passions aroused by a sensational case of this nature and the immense pressures that come to bear on dutiful public officials. But neither government agencies nor our courts can bow to public outrage in enforcing the law,” the court said. “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.”