A man convicted in the killing of a New Jersey state trooper four decades ago should be released on parole, a state appeals court ruled today in a case that also involves one of New Jersey’s most wanted fugitives.
Sundiata Acoli, then known as Clark Edward Squire, was convicted in the 1973 shooting death of trooper Werner Foerster during a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike in East Brunswick.
Also convicted in the case was Joanne Chesimard, who later escaped to Cuba and now lives under the name Assata Shakur. State and federal authorities last year announced a $2 million reward for information leading to her capture, making her the first woman on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists.
The state Parole Board most recently denied Acoli, now in his mid-70s, parole in 2011. Today’s ruling reverses that decision.
The appellate court wrote that the parole board was unfair and ignored evidence that could have been favorable to Acoli.
“Make no mistake, we are completely appalled by Acoli’s senseless crimes, which left a member of the State Police dead and another injured, as well as one of Acoli’s associates dead and the other injured,” the judges wrote. “But Acoli has paid the penalty under the laws of this State for his crimes.”
State Police Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes said he was “disheartened and disappointed” by the decision.
“The mere passage of time should not excuse someone from the commission of such a horrendous act,” Fuentes said in a statement. “My thoughts and prayers go out to the Foerster family whose lives have been deprived of a father and son.”
Acoli and Shakur were Black Panthers and members of a black militant organization at the time of the shooting.
According to court papers, their car was pulled over for a broken tail light. Foerster responded as backup and Acoli’s gun went off during a struggle with the trooper.
The state argued that Chesimard shot and wounded trooper James Harper, then took Foerster’s gun and shot him twice in the head with it while he laid on the ground, the papers say.
A third man in the car, James Costen, died from injuries at the scene.
Acoli claimed he was hit by a bullet and blacked out. He said he couldn’t remember exactly what happened.
He was sentenced to life in prison plus 24 to 30 years in 1974 and currently serves his time in Otisville, N.Y. He was also denied parole in 1993 and 2004.
But the appellate court wrote today that the parole board ignored a report by a prison psychologist that was favorable to him, as well as the fact that he expressed remorse for the trooper’s death and that he had no disciplinary incidents in prison since 1996.
They also said the parole board focused too much on his past criminal record and a probation violation that happened decades before their decision.
Spokesman Leland Moore said the state Attorney General’s Office plans to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court and may seek a stay that would prevent Acoli from being released until the ruling.
Chris Burgos, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association, also criticized the today’s decision.
“We do not believe arguments that a person convicted of the murder of a law enforcement officer and conspiring the violent overthrow of the U.S. Government can be rehabilitated, or considered to have paid their debt to society in full,” Burgos said in a statement.