Home>Governor>N.J. Supreme Court orders release of Sundiata Acoli, who killed state trooper in 1973

New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster, who was shot and killed in the line of duty on May 2, 1973. (Photo: New Jersey State Police).

N.J. Supreme Court orders release of Sundiata Acoli, who killed state trooper in 1973

Decision hinged on Justice Fuentes, a temporary member of the court

By Joey Fox, May 10 2022 12:03 pm

On a 3-2 vote, the New Jersey Supreme Court today ordered the release on parole of Sundiata Acoli, a former Black Panther who infamously killed New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster in 1973. The decision comes after a long process that began when an appellate panel in 2014 found that the now-85-year-old Acoli no longer presented a threat to society, and has slowly plodded along in the eight years since.

“We are not unmindful of the passions aroused by a sensational case of this nature and the immense pressures that come to bear on dutiful public officials,” Justice Barry Albin wrote in the majority opinion. “[But] even the most scorned member of our society is entitled to be sheltered by the protection of the law, no matter how hard and vengeful the winds of public opinion may blow.”

Albin was joined in his majority opinion by Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis and Justice Jose Fuentes, a Superior Court judge who has been temporarily elevated to the court in the absence of a Senate-confirmed justice. Dissenting were Justices Lee Solomon and Anne Patterson; Chief Justice Stuart Rabner did not participate in the case.

It’s impossible to know how Gov. Phil Murphy’s unconfirmed nominee to the court, Rachel Wainer Apter, might have voted, but Fuentes’ pivotal vote shows the continued importance of the high court’s two vacancies, a number which will grow to three this July when Albin hits the mandatory retirement age. Fuentes previously was the tie-breaking vote on a separate case last year that overturned the murder conviction of Michelle Lodzinski.

Solomon wrote in his dissent that no matter what the facts of the case may be, the state Parole Board that denied Acoli release has the discretion to do so and should not be overruled by a court.

“Our sole task is to determine whether the Parole Board abused its discretion under a very lenient standard of review,” he wrote. “We would find that it did not.”

When Acoli and fellow Black Panther Assata Shakur – formerly known as Clark Edward Squire and JoAnne Chesimard, respectively – killed Foerster after a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, the pair immediately became some of the state’s most infamous criminals. Shakur escaped capture and is now living in exile in Cuba, but Acoli was caught and quickly sentenced to life in prison.

In 2014, an appellate court ruled that Acoli could be released, a decision that was reversed in 2016 by none other than the state Supreme Court, which said the appellate court “acted prematurely.” The appellate court then changed course in 2019 and agreed with the Parole Board’s decision to deny release, a decision reversed by the Supreme Court today.

Gov. Phil Murphy, who was pushed by some activists to commute Acoli’s sentence himself, released a statement shortly after the decision expressing his frustration with the outcome.

“I am deeply disappointed that Sundiata Acoli, a man who murdered Trooper Werner Foerster in cold blood in 1973, will be released from prison,” Murphy 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.”

Acting Attorney General Matt Platkin also said he disagreed with the decision, noting that since the passage of a 1996 law, anyone charged with the murder of a law enforcement officer is ineligible for parole – a law that doesn’t retroactively apply to Acoli, who was convicted in 1974.

“I am grateful to the attorneys in my office who opposed the release of Sundiata Acoli and I am disappointed that he will be released on parole,” 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.”

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