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A man convicted of killing a state trooper by the side of a New Jersey highway was sent back to the state parole board by the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Sundiata Acoli, now 79, will be sent back before the full New Jersey State Parole Board, as the state’s highest court reversed a 2014 appellate decision which would have freed him after 43 years in prison.
The state parole board alone has the expertise to determine release – not the appellate judges, according to the state justices.
“We hold that the appropriate remedy in Acoli’s circumstances is a remand to the full parole board for completion of the administrative parole process,” the majority wrote in a 4-1 decision. “That process in its totality requires a full hearing before the parole board on his suitability for parole release and shall permit the victims of Acoli’s criminal acts to be heard, if they wish, by the board prior to a decision on his parole.”
Acoli, then known as Clark Edward Squire, was part of the revolutionary extremist organization known as the Black Liberation Army. Around midnight on May 2, 1973, Acoli and two other members were pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike by two New Jersey State Police troopers. Acoli and the other occupants were wanted for bank robberies. An altercation ensued. Trooper Werner Foerster, 34, was killed, execution-style, with two shots to the head from his own service weapon. Trooper James Harper was seriously wounded. One of the occupants of the car, Zayd Malik Shakur, was killed in the shootout. Acoli and JoAnne Chesimard were quickly captured.
Acoli was convicted of murder, atrocious assault and battery, assault and battery, assault with an offensive weapon, assault with intent to kill, illegal possession of a weapon, and armed robbery, in 1974. He has been behind bars in New Jersey prison, and later at federal penitentiaries, ever since. He first came up for parole in 1993, but has been denied twice, partly based on his maintaining that he “blacked out” when the shooting started by the side of the New Jersey Turnpike – and that he doesn’t remember whether he or Chesimard killed Foerster.
In 2010, the 73-year-old Acoli became eligible for parole for a third time. A two-member parole board panel determined that “a substantial likelihood exists that (Acoli) would commit a new crime if released on parole at this time.” Another panel then determined that he would eligible in another 10 years.
Acoli appealed that decision, claiming that under state law he needed to be heard by the full board. The state held that the law only intended to require a full board hearing if a release was recommended by a smaller panel of the members, to ensure that convicted murderers were not allowed out without full scrutiny.
The appellate judges agreed with Acoli in their 2014 decision. But the New Jersey Supreme Court justices found that the appellate judges stepped too far.
“The appellate division here declined to remand to the parole board for a full hearing,” the justices wrote. “That remedy basically substituted the appellate panel’s judgment for that of the agency charged with the expertise to make such highly predictive, individualistic determinations – the full parole board.”
Chesimard, now also known as Assata Shakur, escaped from prison in 1979, eventually fleeing to Cuba. She has been on the FBI’s Most Wanted List of terrorists since 2013 – and the agency is currently offering a $1 million reward for information directly leading to her arrest.
Acoli’s website refers to the prisoner as “a New Afrikan political prisoner of war.”
The New Jersey State Police said they were gratified with the decision, in a statement from Col. Rick Fuentes, superintendent of the agency.
"Clark Squire can change his name, and can even express remorse when it suits his purposes, but it does not change the fact that he and his criminal associates executed Trooper Werner Foerster and wounded Trooper James Harper," Fuentes said. "Squire has never admitted what role he played in that horrific crime as he, Joanne Chesimard, and James Costen engaged two state troopers during a traffic stop. We are encouraged by today's Supreme Court decision that keeps Squire behind bars."
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