Almost a half a century after a member of the Black Panther Party was arrested for the killing of a New Jersey state trooper, Black law enforcement groups are joining calls for his release.
Sundiata Acoli was arrested in 1973 and later convicted in the death of State Trooper Werner Foerster.
Acoli was traveling with two others on the New Jersey Turnpike when they got pulled over for a broken taillight. A shootout broke out, leaving Foerster and Acoli’s comrade, Zayd Shakur dead. Assata Shakur, who was also in the car at the time, was wounded.
Details of how the shooting started have been debated for years, with some accounts claiming Shakur fired first, according to a 1977 report by The New York Times. Shakur testified during the trial that she was shot first with her arms raised to surrender, NPR reported.
Acoli, now 84 years old, has maintained that he was shot and lost consciousness and does not recall what happened that night, according to The Washington Post. Both Acoli and Shakur received life sentences, though Shakur famously escaped and later reappeared in Cuba.
A Nearly 30-Year Quest for Parole
As NPR reported, Acoli has been eligible for parole since 1993. He was almost released but his parole was overturned in 2016. Since then, Acoli has appealed that decision earlier this year, The Post reported.
Activists and supporters say Acoli’s release is long overdue, citing his record of good behavior and positive contributions to the community while incarcerated. Supporters have also noted the activist’s health is deteriorating, as he was diagnosed with dementia and his health conditions got worse after a battle with COVID-19 last year.
Supporters started the #BringSundiataHome campaign to encourage New Jersey governor to commute Acoli's sentence.
Black Law Enforcement Groups Support His Release
Four Black law enforcement organizations are joining the fight to have Acoli released.
The National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice, the Black Police Experience, Blacks in Law Enforcement of America, and the Grand Council of Guardians made legal arguments supporting Acoli’s release.
The groups filed a brief to the court arguing that Acoli is at low risk of recidivism and to public safety given his age and life prison sentence. The groups also noted that the parole board previously ignored evidence suggesting that Acoli would be unlikely to offend again upon release and that the board actually overstepped its reach by suggesting Acoli receive harsher punishment terms.
“The Parole Board is not tasked with meting out punishment; that role belongs solely to the sentencing judge,” the groups wrote.
They also cited racial bias that too often leads to unequal sentencing.