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One of the former Black Nationalist activists who shot and killed a New Jersey State Trooper in one of the state’s most infamous homicides was paroled Tuesday.
The New Jersey state Supreme Court granted parole to Sundiata Acoli nearly 50 years after the radical Black Liberation Army activist shot and killed New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster during a traffic stop near New Brunswick. The Court ruled, 3-2, to overrule a parole board decision denying Acoli parole, The New York Times reported.
In his majority opinion for the Court, Associate Justice Barry T. Albin wrote that the parole board had not sufficiently proved that Acoli would be likely to commit another crime. Acoli is 85 and is currently in the early stages of dementia, NBC 4 New York noted.
“No member of the Court disputes that Acoli committed a horrific crime,” Albin wrote. “The issue, however, is whether Acoli, after nearly five decades of imprisonment, has satisfied the statutory demands that govern his parole eligibility. The Parole Board, like every government agency, must faithfully discharge the law entrusted to it, even when it may not be popular to do so. However despised Acoli may be in the eyes of many because of the notoriety of his crime, he too is entitled to the protection of the law — and to the fair and impartial administration of justice. That is what our commitment to the rule of law requires.”
Acoli will be released to his daughter and her family, with whom he will live in accordance with his parole plan.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy criticized the decision in a statement Tuesday. “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 1996, Governor Whitman signed a law ensuring that anyone who murders an officer on duty will receive life in prison without the possibility of parole, and I profoundly wish this law had been in place when Acoli was sentenced in 1974. Our men and women in uniform are heroes, and anyone who would take the life of an officer on duty should remain behind bars until the end of their life.”
Acting Attorney General Matthew Platkin issued a similar statement, expressing gratitude for the state’s attorneys who opposed Acoli’s release, as well as disappointment at his release.
On May 2, 1973, Sundiata Acoli and fellow members of the Black Liberation Army, James Costan and Joanne Chesimard (also known as Assata Shakur), were driving along the New Jersey Turnpike when they were pulled over by Trooper James Harper. Trooper Foerster, a German immigrant who had been serving as a State Trooper for less than three years, arrived as Harper’s backup.
The New York Times reported at the time that the two men were driving Chesimard, who was wanted by the NYPD and FBI for armed bank robbery, the killing of two New York City police officers, and attacking a police car with a hand grenade, to a hideout in Philadelphia when the troopers pulled over the car they were driving.
At some point during the traffic stop, the three suspects began shooting at the troopers, who fired back. Foerster was killed, as was Costan, and Harper was injured. The other suspects drove away, but were captured shortly afterward. Chesimard later broke out of prison and has been living in Cuba as Assata Shakur.