Sundiata Acoli, then known as Clark Edward Squire, is led away in handcuffs in this 1976 photo. (Star-Ledger By Brent Johnson
TRENTON — The state Supreme Court has halted the parole of a man convicted with Joanne Chesimard —one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives — in the infamous killing of a New Jersey state trooper 42 years ago.
The state’s highest court today granted the state Attorney General’s request that Sundiata Acoli not be released until the court decides whether to hear arguments in the case against his parole.
Acoli, then known as Clark Edward Squire, was found guilty of murder in the 1973 shooting death of trooper Werner Foerster during a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Also convicted in the case was Chesimard, who escaped from a New Jersey prison in 1979 and allegedly now lives under the name Assata Shakur in Cuba, which granted her asylum. She is the first woman on the FBI’s most wanted terrorists list.
Last September, a three-judge state appeals panel reversed the most recent decision by the state Parole Board to deny Acoli parole and ordered that he be released.
The Attorney General appealed to the Supreme Court to reverse that decision, arguing that the panel erred by not sending Acoli’s case back to the Parole Board for another hearing, as required by the state Legislature.
“The Legislature has determined that he may only be released by a majority vote of the full state Parole Board,” the Attorney General’s office wrote in its brief.
Spokesman Leland Moore said the office expects Acoli, now 77, to remain in federal prison until there is an outcome in the case.
The Parole Board also asked the the appellate panel last October to reconsider its decision, saying it ignored laws governing the release of inmates.
Interest in the decades-old cade was recently reignited by President Obama’s decision to ease relations with Cuba. Gov. Chris Christie, the New Jersey State Police and state and federal lawmakers have asked Obama to demand Chesimard’s extradition. In 2013, the reward for information leading to her capture was increased to $2 million.
At the time of the murder, Acoli and Chesimard were Black Panthers and members of the Black Liberation Army, a militant organization whose members were accused of attacking and sometimes killing police officers in the 1970s.
Just after midnight on May 2, 1973, trooper James Harper pulled over Acoli and Chesimard’s car for a broken tail light on the Turnpike in East Brunswick, according to court papers. Harper called Foerster for backup, and Foerster discovered a gun on Acoli, the papers say.
Soon, a firefight broke out. Chesimard shot and wounded Harper, and Foerster was shot when Acoli’s gun went off during a struggle with Acoli on the other side of the car, the documents say.
The state argued that Chesimard then took Foerster’s gun and shot the trooper twice in the head with it while he laid on the ground. But Chesimard’s attorneys claimed she could not have pulled the trigger because she had also been shot and was too badly injured.
Acoli claimed he was hit by a bullet and blacked out, saying he couldn’t remember exactly what happened.
A third man in the car, James Costen, was also shot in the scuffle and died from injuries not far from the scene.
Acoli was sentenced to life in prison plus 24 to 30 years in 1974. He was denied parole in 1993 and 2004.
The appellate panel wrote last fall it was “completely appalled by Acoli’s senseless crimes.”
“But Acoli has paid the penalty under the laws of this State for his crimes,” the panel added.
Acoli was captured while trying to escape prison in 1982. He also received 27 disciplinary citations in prison before 1997, according to court papers.
But the panel wrote that the parole board ignored a report by a prison psychologist that said Acoli “expressed regret and remorse” about the killing and had changed over the years, as well as the fact that he has not received a disciplinary citation since 1996.
The judges also said the board focused too much on Acoli’s past criminal record and a probation violation that happened decades ago.
“The evidence before the board failed to demonstrate that Acoli was substantially likely to commit another offense if released,” the panel wrote.
Bruce Afran, Acoli’s attorney, could not be reached for comment today.
source: http://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2015/02/nj_supreme_court_puts_off_parole_o f_man_convicted.html