The New Jersey Supreme Court ordered to release on parole the killer of a New Jersey state trooper, thus overturning the decision of the parole board that denied to release the murderer. The court ruling drew backlash from the governor, the state’s Attorney General, lawmakers, and police.
The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Tuesday with a 3–2 vote to grant parole to Sundiata Acoli, a former member of a terrorist group who was convicted of killing New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster in 1973.
Today’s Supreme Court opinion examines whether the New Jersey State Parole Board has established by a preponderance of the evidence that there is a substantial likelihood that Sundiata Acoli will commit a crime if placed on parole. #supremeopinionhttps://t.co/IyFEEadArC pic.twitter.com/igmgTga6ku
— New Jersey Courts (@njcourts) May 10, 2022
New Jersey Justice Barry Albin wrote in the majority opinion (pdf), “the [state Parole] Board has failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that there is a substantial likelihood that, if released on parole, Acoli will commit a crime.”
Sundiata Acoli, 85, formerly known as Clark Edward Squire, applied for parole several times but his requests were rejected by the New Jersey Parole Board. His attorneys argued he’s been a model prisoner for nearly three decades and has counseled other inmates.
New Jersey Parole Board contended Acoli is still a risk to commit future crimes and has not taken full responsibility for trooper Foerster’s death.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Lee Solomon (pdf) wrote that the parole board’s decision was supported by the evidence.
Moreover, the state parole board has the discretion to determine whether the convict qualifies for the release from prison and it should not be overruled by a court, Solomon explained in his dissenting opinion.
“Our sole task is to determine whether the Parole Board abused its discretion under a very lenient standard of review. We would find that it did not,” Solomon wrote.
“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,” Solomon stated.
Acoli’s accomplice, Joanne Chesimard, was also convicted and sentenced to a life term but escaped from a New Jersey prison in 1979. Now known as Assata Shakur, she was given asylum in Cuba by then-President Fidel Castro and remains a fugitive. Both Acoli and Chesimard were members of the Black Liberation Army.
The Black Liberation Army (BLA) is an urban guerrilla group with “two primary goals of killing police officers and expropriating funds from capitalists and imperialists to finance the revolution,” according to the Department of Justice.
Opposing the Verdict
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, expressed his disappointment with granting Acoli parole. “I am deeply disappointed that Sundiata Acoli, a man who murdered Trooper Werner Foerster in cold blood in 1973, will be released from prison.,” Murphy said in a statement.
In 1996, New Jersey enacted a law that denied parole to anyone who receives life in prison for killing an officer on duty. “I profoundly wish this law had been in place when Acoli was sentenced in 1974,” Murphy said in the statement.
New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin said in a statement, “I am grateful to the attorneys in my office who opposed the release of Sundiata Acoli and I am disappointed that he will be released on parole.”
New Jersey state Assembly members Victoria Flynn and Gerry Scharfenberger, both Republicans, denounced the state Supreme Court verdict in a joint statement.
“There is no legal basis to let this killer go free, especially since he has not expressed remorse after all these years for the death of one of our state’s police officers,” Flynn said in the statement.
Flynn agreed with the dissenting opinion issued by Solomon. “It is not the role of the Court to second-guess the Parole Board’s decision. There is no justification for this,” Flynn said.
Upon hearing that “one of the reasons for the parole was because of Acoli’s ‘verbal renunciation of violence,” Scharfenberger commented on the verdict: “You shouldn’t get a pass for murdering a State Trooper because you suddenly proclaim to be a pacifist—it’s outrageous!”
“[The Supreme Court] is an institution which is supposed to be the standard-bearer of our justice system but has instead made the choice to dishonor the memory and sacrifice of a fallen officer as well as all who are and have served,” Scharfenberger said in the statement.
New Jersey state Senator Jon Bramnick (R) said in a statement, “Society needs to hold cop killers totally responsible for their horrific acts.”
“Today’s court decision just reminds us all that is wrong with our courts. We stand with our brothers and sisters in the New Jersey State Police in outrage that during police week the courts release a cop killer. This is a slap in the face to every officer.” President Colligan pic.twitter.com/XONt4f0Rxx
— New Jersey State PBA (@NJSPBA) May 10, 2022
The President of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association Patrick Colligan said in a statement posted on Facebook and Twitter, “Today’s court decision just reminds us all that is wrong with our courts. … This is a slap in the face to every officer.”
In 2013, state and federal authorities announced a $2 million reward for information leading to Chesimard’s capture, and the FBI made her the first woman on its list of most wanted terrorists.
Then-President Donald Trump demanded that Cuba return Chesimard in 2017 when he announced plans to reverse some Obama administration Cuba policies.
In 2005, Castro referred to Shakur as a victim of “the fierce repression against the Black movement in the United States” and said she had been “a true political prisoner.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.