Trenton, NJ – The New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the release of an 85-year-old convicted cop killer on Tuesday even though he showed no remorse for murdering New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster.
Sundiata Acoli, whose real name is Clark Edward Squire, had been denied parole multiple times, The Washington Post reported.
The New Jersey State Police and its supporters wanted Acoli to die behind bars because they believe he is an unapologetic cop killer.
“There’s a lot of resentment about the fact that a police officer was killed,” Acoli’s attorney, Bruce Afran, said. “And that’s what has driven this delay over these years.”
“This decision is saying when someone is eligible for parole, the board must release him unless there’s a true factual basis to show the inmate cannot be trusted to return to the community,” Afran explained.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said he was “deeply disappointed” by the State Supreme Court’s decision and pointed to a law passed after Acoli was convicted that requires life in prison without the possibility of parole for cop killers, The Washington Post reported.
“I profoundly wish this law had been in place when Acoli was sentenced in 1974,” Murphy said. “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.”
Joseph Russo, first assistant public defender in the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, said the ruling was going to have a huge positive impact on aging inmates, The Washington Post reported.
“The bottom line: the board, going forward, cannot ‘cherry-pick’ selective portions of the record to justify a predetermined conclusion to deny parole solely based upon a hyperfocus on the underlying crimes,” Russo said.
He then quoted a civil rights attorney who told the court the parole board basically “froze Mr. Acoli in 1973,” The Washington Post reported.
Acoli was 36 years old when he was convicted of the murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster during a 1973 traffic stop with Joanne Chesimard, FOX News reported.
Both Acoli and Chesimard were convicted of Trooper Foerster’s murder but it remained unclear who pulled the trigger, NJ Advance Media reported.
Chesimard, a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) most-wanted terrorist, escaped prison and now goes by the name of Assata Shakur.
She gained notoriety after the murder and escaped from prison in 1979 with the help of three gunmen, New Jersey Advance Media reported.
She has lived under political asylum in Cuba since at least 1984.
The FBI and the New Jersey State Attorney General’s Office currently have a combined reward offer of $2 million for information leading to 71-year-old Chesimard’s capture.
Acoli, now 85 and suffering from dementia, has served 49 years in prison so far for Trooper Foerster’s murder, NJ Advance Media reported.
He was sentenced to life in prison, plus 24 years, according to the Bridgewater Courier News.
However, Acoli has gone up for parole multiple times and been denied on each occasion, NJ Advance Media reported.
The state parole board had repeatedly said that the convicted cop killer is too dangerous to release.
The third denials of parole in 2010 set off a series of legal challenges on behalf of Acoli, NJ Advance Media reported.
A state appellate court upheld the parole denial in December of 2019 and ruled in that the New Jersey Parole Board had “applied the correct law” when it denied Acoli’s parole.
The parole board had contended after his parole hearing in 2017 that although Acoli admitted his role in Trooper Foerster’s murder, he “lacked insight into his criminal behavior, denied key aspects of his crimes and minimized his criminal conduct and anti-social behavior,” the Bridgewater Courier News reported.
Since then, a coalition of civil rights organizations and several black police officer groups have taken up Acoli’s cause, advocated for the now-elderly prisoner’s release, and sought the hearing before the state Supreme Court, NJ.com reported.
Lawyers for Acoli claimed that the New Jersey Parole Board’s assertions that 85-year-old grandfather is likely to commit another crime are ridiculous.
The prisoner is in the early stages of dementia and still suffering long-term effects from a Covid-19 infection last year, according to his attorneys.
The New Jersey Supreme Court accepted Acoli’s case against the parole board in June of 2021, NJ.com reported.
New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner recused himself from the case that involved the 1973 shooting but wouldn’t say why.
Trooper Foerster’s murder and the shenanigans that followed with Chesimard have made the case infamous and a sore spot for law enforcement in the state, NJ Advance media reported.
The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office argued that Acoli showed no remorse for Trooper Foerster’s murder.
“Despite him saying he’d accepted responsibility and understanding, when pushed with what happens, he goes to blaming the victims here, the officers,” New Jersey Assistant Attorney General Stephanie Cohen told the justices.
But the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with Acoli’s supporters who said he had paid his debt and was no longer a threat to society, The Washington Post reported.
The divided court ordered Acoli released on May 12, 49 years after he murdered Trooper Foerster.