Twenty-nine years after he was eligible for parole, the work of friends, legal eagles, and committed grassroots activists have secured the release of 85-year-old Sundiata Acoli, after serving 49 years in prison.
His is the one-time controversial case which involved now Cuba-exile Assata Shakur, and the 1973 New Jersey turnpike trooper shooting.
On Tuesday, May 10, 2022, in a 3-to-2 decision the New Jersey Supreme Court granted Acoli’s release, ruling that he had been unlawfully denied by the parole board, as they had proclaimed that the elder posed a risk to public safety.
In their decision this week though, the Supreme Court determined that the grandfather, reportedly now living with dementia, showed no risk to public safety, or recidivism.
“Acoli must be released because the statutory standards for granting parole have been met, without regard to extraneous factors like sympathy or passion or public opinion.”
The Bring Sundiata Acoli Home Alliance praised the court’s decision.
“It’s time now for Mr. Acoli to live the rest of his life in the loving care of his family and community.”
Reportedly, Acoli plans to live with his daughter and grandchildren.
Lumumba Bandele, who also represents the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, told the Amsterdam News, “The correct standard of law was applied by the Court and affirmed the fact that the parole board improperly denied Sundiata Acoli’s petition for release eight times after he served more than 49 years in prison. In N.J., the burden of proof rests on the state to prove that the defendant poses a risk.”
Acoli had been deemed a political prisoner by the Malcolm X Commemoration Committee, the Jericho Movement, the late Herman Ferguson, and activists such as WBAI host Dequi kioni-sadiki and Lumumba Bandele. Acoli’s family and friends had always been in attendance of the community-led annual Political Prisoner Family Dinner Tribute and Fundraiser.
“The Parole Board’s decision to deny Acoli parole is not supported by substantial evidence in the record or by a reasonable weighing of the relevant factors in N.J.A.C. 10A:71-3.11(b) that govern parole,” wrote the New Jersey Supreme Court justices on Tuesday. “Even under the most deferential standard of review, the Board has failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that there is a substantial likelihood that, if released on parole, Acoli will commit a crime. Acoli must be released because the statutory standards for granting parole have been met, without regard to extraneous factors like sympathy or passion or public opinion. (pp. 53-55) REVERSED.”
Civil rights attorney Soffiyah Elijah said, “We applaud the New Jersey Supreme Court in granting Mr. Acoli’s freedom and correcting the parole board’s improper application of the law by denying his petition for release after serving more than 49 years in prison. It’s time now for Mr. Acoli to live the rest of his life in the loving care of his family and community.”
Sundiata Acoli v. New Jersey State Parole Board (A-73-20) (083980) was argued on Jan. 31, 2022, and decided on May 10, 2022.
While activists hail Acoli as a 1970s member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, authorities determined that on May 2, 1973, Acoli was involved in a trooper traffic stop with comrades Zayd Malik Shakur (James Costan) and Assata Shakur (JoAnne Chesimard). Police said they were all armed with handguns. Stopped around 1.am., allegedly from a broken taillight by New Jersey State Trooper James Harper, all went haywire when Trooper Werner Foerster arrived and, when padding Acoli down, found the gun. Cops say during the escalating confrontation Assata Shakur shot Trooper Harper in the shoulder. A shootout ensued between Harper, and both Shakurs.
The Supreme Court decision reports, “In the meantime, Acoli attempted to wrest Trooper Foerster’s gun from him. In the course of that physical struggle, Acoli claims that Trooper Harper fired at him, grazing the top of his head and causing him to black out. According to Acoli, when he regained consciousness, Trooper Foerster’s body was lying on the ground nearby.” Acoli and both Shakurs, then severely wounded, drove away. But soon afterwards Assata was arrested, Zayd died from his wounds, and Acoli was caught a day later. In separate trials both were charged with the murder of Foerster. Assata maintained that with gunshot wounds she could not have killed the trooper. Acoli protested that having lost consciousness after being hit by Trooper Harper’s bullet, he did not know what happened. He was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 25 years. He was denied four different times.
Assata Shakur’s name pops up every so often in the press and on campaign literature of certain politicos demanding that she be returned from Cuba where she escaped to in 1979, was granted political asylum, and also placed on the FBI’s most wanted list.
Dequi kioni-sadiki of the Spirit of Mandela Coordinating Committee told the Amsterdam News, “Words cannot express the joy and relief that comes with the Supreme Court decision to end the imprisonment of this 85-year-old elder. Sundiata’s release is a powerful reminder that we must never give up on the vision.”
Seen as a member of the liberation generation, the activist community is celebrating Acoli’s release after almost 50 years of incarceration. Writing on Facebook, healthcare warrior Emarie Knight bid Acoli, “Thank you for your service…welcome home.”
Lawyer Soffiyah Elijah said, “We appreciate and thank his thousands of supporters from the attorneys, individuals, and community organizations to those who submitted amicus briefs on his behalf to champion his freedom; freedom that is rightfully his. We strongly hope that Mr. Acoli’s freedom will bring attention to the thousands of elders like him trapped in the New Jersey prison system.”