Sundiata Acoli, a former Black Panther member who was convicted of murder in 1974 and has been denied parole multiple times, will now be released from prison. The New Jersey supreme court has granted parole to Acoli, ruling that he was no longer a threat to the public.
85-year-old Acoli has been serving a life sentence for the 1973 murder of a New Jersey state trooper during a shootout in which Assata Shakur, the self-exiled aunt of Tupac Shakur, was also arrested. Shakur escaped in 1979 and fled to Cuba, where she was granted political asylum. Acoli had been eligible for parole since 1992 but had been denied so many times.
In the 1970s when the Black liberation fighters’ struggle was at its peak in the United States, it gave birth to militant groups like Philadelphia-based MOVE founded by John Africa in 1972 and the Black Panther Party founded in late October 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. The Black Panthers’ militant wing was called the Black Liberation Army.
Acoli, a member of the Black Liberation Army, was on May 2, 1973, driving just after midnight when a state trooper, James Harper, stopped him for a “defective taillight”. Acoli was then in the vehicle with two others — Assata Shakur and Zayd Malik Shakur — who were also members of the Black Liberation Army. Harper was joined by another trooper, Werner Foerster, at the scene. Foerster then found an ammunition magazine for an automatic pistol on Acoli. A shootout ensued; Foerster died in the process and Harper was wounded.
Assata Shakur was arrested while Zayd Malik Shakur was found dead near the car. Acoli fled but was caught some hours later. Acoli and Assata Shakur were convicted of the murder of Foerster in separate trials. Acoli said he did not remember what happened as he passed out after being hit by a bullet. In 1974, Acoli was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 25 years. Acoli became eligible for parole in 1992 but was not allowed to take part in his own parole hearing.
All in all, he has been denied parole eight times. His lawyer, Bruce Afran, said each time he is denied, the reason given is the same — “he hasn’t done enough psychological counseling; he doesn’t fully admit to his crime, or he hasn’t adequately apologized for it,” according to the Post. In 2014, a state appellate panel ruled that Acoli should be released, citing good behavior since 1996. The state Attorney General’s office however contested and the case was sent back to the board. Again, it denied Acoli’s request. Acoli started appealing that decision.
After being repeatedly denied parole, New Jersey’s Supreme Court has now voted 3-2 to overturn a parole board ruling, according to BBC. Acoli’s prison record has been “exemplary”, the judges said, adding that he had completed 120 courses while in prison, received positive evaluations from prison officials, and participated in counseling. The parole board had “lost sight that its mission largely was to determine the man Acoli had become”, the judges said.
Activists now hope that Acoli’s release would bring attention to other elderly members of the Black Panthers who are still imprisoned in the U.S.