New Jersey’s Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed a ruling that would have paroled a man convicted in the 1973 killing of a state trooper in a case that still generates controversy in the state and beyond.
Sundiata Acoli was known as Clark Edward Squire when he was convicted of killing State Trooper Werner Foerster during a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Also convicted was Joanne Chesimard, a member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Party who later escaped from prison and fled to Cuba. She changed her named to Assata Shakur and remains a fugitive.
Last fall, Gov. Chris Christie and the head of the agency that runs New York-area airports called for United Airlines, the dominant carrier at Newark Liberty Airport, to refrain from launching flights from there to Cuba until Chesimard is returned to the United States.
To set Acoli free “would have been a travesty of justice and another slap in the face to the law enforcement community and the victims of these crimes,” state troopers’ union head Chris Burgos wrote in an email Tuesday.
The state attorney general’s office and the head of the state police praised the ruling.
State Police Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes said in an email, “Squire has never admitted what role he played in that horrific crime. We are encouraged by today’s Supreme Court decision that keeps Squire behind bars.”
A two-person parole board panel rejected Acoli’s parole attempt in 2011, but a state appeals court reversed that in 2014 and ordered him released. He has remained in prison while the case is on appeal.
The appeals court determined that the parole board panel ignored evidence favorable to Acoli and gave undue consideration to past events, such as a probation violation that occurred decades earlier. The state appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.
In reversing the appeals court ruling, Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote for a 4-1 majority Tuesday that a full board hearing “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.”
In a dissent, Justice Barry Albin referred to the case of Thomas Trantino, who was paroled in 2002 after serving nearly 40 years in prison for killing two police officers.
“Acoli committed the most heinous crime: the murder of a law enforcement officer - a crime, which, if committed today, would result in a life sentence without parole eligibility,” Albin wrote. “But even the most despised inmate is entitled to the protection and enforcement of the law. That was the lesson in Trantino. That is a lesson, sadly, forgotten today.”
Bruce Afran, an attorney who argued Acoli’s case before the Supreme Court, noted that psychologists recommended that Acoli be paroled.
“He’s regarded as a model inmate in the federal system and the federal system reports all say that,” he said. “He’s by all means a completely different person today than he was 43 years ago.”
According to court documents, Acoli’s gun went off during a struggle with Foerster, who had responded as backup after another officer pulled over the car for a broken tail light.
The state contended Chesimard shot Trooper James Harper, wounding him, then took Foerster’s gun and shot him twice in the head as he lay on the ground. A third man in the car, James Costen, died from his injuries at the scene.
Acoli has claimed he was grazed by a bullet and blacked out, and couldn’t remember the exact sequence of events. He was sentenced in 1974 to life in prison plus 24 to 30 years.
In 2013, state and federal authorities announced a $2 million reward for information leading to Shakur’s capture, and the FBI made her the first woman on its list of most wanted terrorists.
This version corrects that the appeals court made its decision in 2014, not 2015.
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