New Jersey's highest court has ordered an octogenarian convicted of murdering a New Jersey state trooper nearly 50 years ago in one of the state’s most infamous crimes released from prison, reversing a parole board's decision earlier this year.
In a narrow 3-2 ruling released Tuesday, the New Jersey Supreme Court said there was no "substantial credible evidence" to support the state parole board’s findings that the release of Sundiata Acoli presents an ongoing danger to the public.
Acoli, who was denied parole eight times over the years, was convicted of the 1973 killing of State Trooper Werner Foerster during a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. He went by the name Clark Edward Squire at the time.
The state had cited a lack of remorse in its repeat denials of parole for Acoli. In a lengthy interview at his last hearing, for example, Acoli submitted that Foerster could have been killed by "friendly fire." Prosecutors say that's clearly not the case.
Get Tri-state area news and weather forecasts to your inbox. Sign up for NBC New York newsletters.
The person who pulled the trigger, though, is still a fugitive. That, prosecutors allege, is Joanne Chesimard, a member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army who later escaped from prison in New Jersey and fled to Cuba.
She became the first woman included on the FBI's most wanted terrorist list in 2013 and changed her name to Assata Shakur.
Now 85 and suffering from early dementia, attorneys for Acoli in arguing for his parole said he was a model prisoner with no infractions for nearly three decades. They also noted he had been praised for counseling other inmates.
The defendant's lawyers said Acoli has had extensive counseling, taken more than 150 courses while in prison and expressed remorse for Foerster’s death.
“There’s no question of the gravity of the crime and the tragedy that ensued, but a desire not to let a cop killer out can never be the guidance for an agency,” attorney Bruce Afran told the court in January, citing a 1979 change to state parole laws that placed a higher burden on the board to show an inmate was at risk to re-offend.
Acoli first became eligible for parole in 2010 and was rejected, but a state appeals court reversed that in 2014 and ordered him released. The Supreme Court reversed that in 2016 and sent the case back to the full parole board for review, and the board again rejected Acoli’s bid.
The state contended Shakur 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.
New Jersey State Police Superintendent Colonel Patrick J. Callahan said he called Foerster's widow as soon as he learned Acoli's release had been ordered. He said she was just as devastated and disappointed by the court decision as he was.
“Acoli’s release is not only an injustice for the Foerster family and the men and women who serve within the New Jersey State Police, but to every law enforcement officer in this country who dedicates their lives for the safety of the citizens we are sworn to protect," Callahan said in a statement. "Trooper Foerster was not given a second chance when he was murdered on the New Jersey Turnpike, leaving behind a widow and 3-year-old son."
"Under today’s law, Acoli would be in prison for life without the possibility of parole," he added. "While we cannot change the laws in place when this murder occurred, I was hopeful that understanding the risks law enforcement officers face on a daily basis would have helped to keep Acoli in prison for the remainder of his life."
Acting New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin condemned Acoli's release in a statement Tuesday, saying he was disappointed by the decision.
"Under New Jersey law today, if an individual murders a law enforcement officer on duty he is never eligible for parole -- a decision that reflects the heinous nature of that crime," Platkin said. "I will always stand up for the safety and well-being of our law enforcement officers, including the brave Troopers of the New Jersey State Police."
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy also shared his dismay.
"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," the Democrat 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."