Black Activist Sundiata Acoli Released From Prison After 49 Years

Photo: Bring Sundiata Acoli Home Alliance

Sundiata Acoli, a former member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, was released from prison Tuesday (May 10) after winning parole.

The 85-year-old had unsuccessfully appeared before the parole board for years but was ordered to be released from prison this week after a divided New Jersey Supreme Court made the ruling.

Acoli was convicted of the shooting death of New Jersey State Police trooper Werner Foerster in 1973 during a traffic stop on the state's Turnpike. The former Black Panther activist was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years. He became eligible for parole in 1993 due to good behavior but was denied four separate times throughout the 49 years he served behind bars.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and members of the law enforcement community publicly opposed Acoli's release because of inconsistencies in his account of Foerster's murder, including that Acoli said he blacked out and doesn't remember shooting the trooper.

The state's high court, however, disagreed, pointing to the parole board's obligation to determine who Acoli has become –– not who he was at the time of the fatal shooting.

In a 3-2 decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled to grant Acoli his freedom, citing the Parole Act of 1979, which states that eligible people should be granted release unless there's evidence that shows a substantial chance the person will commit more crimes.

The Court pointed to Acoli's two decades of infraction-free incarceration, multiple programs he's participated in, counseling, and his older age.

"It is difficult to imagine what else might have persuaded the Board that Acoli did not present a substantial likelihood to reoffend," the Court's majority wrote.

Photo: Getty Images

The fatal traffic stop occurred just after midnight on May 2, 1973 when state trooper James Harper pulled Acoli over for a broken taillight. Black Liberation Army members Assata Shakur and Zayd Malik Shakur were also in the car. According to news reports from the trial at the time, there was a magazine and pistol found in the car before a gun battle began.

It remains unclear who shot Foerster, who was fatally wounded in the head with his own service weapon. Zayd Shakur was also killed. Assata Shakur and Acoli were both convicted of the murder in separate trials. Shakur fled to Cuba and remains on the FBI's Most Wanted list.

Acoli's attorney says the 85-year-old has plans to live with his daughter in New York and has early-stage dementia.

"It's time now for Mr. Acoli to live the rest of his life in the loving care of his family and community," one of Acoli's principle advocates, civil rights attorney Soffiyah Elijah told The Washington Post.

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