Sundiata Acoli, a former Black Panther who was a member of the ultranationalist Black Liberation Army, was granted parole 49 years after his conviction, the Washington Post reports.
Acoli was found guilty of murdering New Jersey State Police officer Werner Foerster during a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. Assata Shakur was also in the car.
In a separate trial, Shakur was convicted of Foerster’s murder but it’s unknown who pulled the trigger. Eventually, Shakur escaped to Cuba, and she remains one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives.
Acoli was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years; he became eligible for release in 1993 because of good behavior. He appeared before the parole board on four different occasions and was denied after each appearance until the latest round.
Although New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy along with the law enforcement community vehemently opposed Acoli gaining his freedom, the New Jersey high court argued that the role of the parole board was to assess who he has become and not who he was at the time of the crime.
The 3-to-2 ruling cited the Parole Act of 1979, which states “inmates shall be released when they are eligible, unless there is a preponderance of the evidence showing a substantial likelihood they will commit another crime.”
“It is difficult to imagine what else might have persuaded the Board that Acoli did not present a substantial likelihood to reoffend,” the majority opinion read.
Bruce Afran, Acoli’s lead attorney, said his client was not granted parole in the past because his crime involved the killing of a police officer but that shouldn’t justify denying someone their statutory rights.
“There’s a lot of resentment about the fact that a police officer was killed. And that’s what has driven this delay over these years,” Afran said. “This decision is saying when someone is eligible for parole, the board must release him unless there’s a true factual basis to show the inmate cannot be trusted to return to the community.”
Supporters of Acoli believe that he's already paid his debt to society. He has early-stage dementia and was hospitalized last year with COVID-19.
“It’s time now for Mr. Acoli to live the rest of his life in the loving care of his family and community,” Soffiyah Elijah, a civil rights lawyer and one of Acoli advocates said.
Upon his release, Acoli plans to live with his daughter in New York.