Tuesday, February 23, 2016

N.J. Supreme Court Rules Against Parole for Political Prisoner Sundiata Acoli
A now-elderly man convicted of killing a state trooper in the 1970s will remain in prison after the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled against him Tuesday, overturning a lower-court ruling that had granted him parole.

The Supreme Court’s 4-1 ruling does not foreclose the possibility of parole for Sundiata Acoli, but it does set back the clock for him, requiring months if not years of additional legal proceedings before he could be released. In the meantime, Acoli will remain in federal prison in Maryland.

Formerly known as Clark Edward Squire, Acoli received a life sentence in 1974 for his role in killing New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster. After a midnight shootout in May 1973 on the shoulder of the Turnpike, a wounded Foerster was executed with his own gun, sparking a public outcry.

Acoli’s attorney, Bruce I. Afran, said “43 years in prison is enough.”

Afran called Foerster’s death a tragedy but added, “Keeping Sundiata Acoli in prison will not lessen that pain but will merely continue a tragic episode.”

At the time of the shooting, Acoli, now 79, was a Black Panther and one of three members of the Black Liberation Army who faced off against Foerster and another trooper who was injured but not killed, James Harper. The incident began with a traffic stop and has since become an international controversy.

One of Acoli’s accomplices in the shooting, Joanne Chesimard, escaped from state prison in 1979 and fled to Cuba, where she was granted political asylum. The FBI placed her on its “most wanted terrorist” list in 2013 and has announced a $2 million bounty for information leading to her capture. Governor Christie and leading state Democrats have criticized President Obama for renewing diplomatic ties with Cuba while it continues to harbor Chesimard.

New Jersey’s state Parole Board has declined to release Acoli multiple times since 1993, finding that he has not fully owned up to his role in Foerster's death.

Acoli has expressed remorse, but he has maintained since his trial in 1974 that he “blacked out” amid the gunfire and does not recall whether he or Chesimard killed the trooper. Among other reasons for rejecting Acoli’s application, the Parole Board found that this version of events did not square with the facts and was a sign that Acoli was “still in denial of the execution-style killing.”

The president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association union, Christopher Burgos, welcomed the Supreme Court’s ruling and said Acoli should remain “locked up and away from civil society for the rest of his life.”

“If that’s his way of dealing with it, by saying he can’t remember, I don’t believe a single word of what he says,” Burgos said.

Rose Foerster, the trooper’s widow and a Florida resident, has declined several recent interview requests from The Record.

A three-judge panel of the state Appellate Division had ordered Acoli’s release in 2014, finding that he no longer posed a risk to the public after reaching old age in prison.

A majority of the Supreme Court overturned that ruling.

Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote for the court that “the Appellate Division acted prematurely in ordering Acoli’s parole release.”

New Jersey law requires that murder convicts go before the full Parole Board for an exhaustive final interview before being released, LaVecchia wrote. Acoli did not because his parole application could be denied without that interview.

Instead of releasing him outright, the appeals court should have ordered the final interview, the Supreme Court ruled.

The exit interview gives the family members of the murder victims a chance “to be heard, if they wish,” the Supreme Court noted.

Lee Moore, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, welcomed the court’s ruling and said “the matter of whether or not Mr. Acoli should remain in prison for murdering a New Jersey state trooper will now proceed according to the provisions of the controlling statute.”

The Supreme Court majority took no position on the merits of Acoli’s appeal. Effectively, however, their ruling could extend his legal proceedings for months or years – or prevent him from leaving prison altogether.

After the final interview with Acoli, the Parole Board could decline to release him again. He would then be able to file a new appeal to the state Appellate Division, and that court could rule for or against him.

“If Acoli is denied parole, then that would be the appropriate time at which the Appellate Division might have occasion to consider whether the unusual remedy of judicially ordered parole of a convicted murderer might be in order,” LaVecchia wrote.

Justice Barry Albin wrote in dissent that “even the most despised inmate is entitled to the protection and enforcement of the law.”

At the time of his conviction, Acoli was eligible for parole under state law. The appeals court simply was following the law, Albin said, after finding that Acoli no longer posed a risk to the public.

Under current law, those who are convicted of killing law enforcement officers in New Jersey are no longer eligible for parole.

“The majority’s strained and unreasonable interpretation of our law will keep Acoli in prison for more hearings and more appeals – without in any way altering the Appellate Division’s unchallenged legal conclusion that Acoli poses no danger to the public,” Albin wrote.

Afran said that Acoli is considered a model inmate in the federal prison system and that the goal of the prison system is to rehabilitate offenders and prepare them to re-enter society.

“Certainly, in view of the amount of time that has passed and his age, if parole is to be meaningful, I think we have to expedite the process,” he said.

“It's not a victory for anyone to continue a nearly half-century long imprisonment if the inmate is now regarded as a law-abiding citizen who can safely return to society,” Afran said.

Joining LaVecchia’s opinion were Justices Anne Patterson and Lee Solomon, and Judge Mary Catherine Cuff. Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina did not participate in the case.

Email: rizzo@northjersey.com

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