Sundiata Acoli, a former Black Panther member who was convicted of murder in 1974 and has been denied parole multiple times, will go before New Jersey’s Supreme Court this year to win his freedom, The Washington Post reports. Acoli is 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 has been eligible for parole since 1992 but has been denied so many times. “You can have someone elderly who may still be dangerous in some rare cases, but that is not this man. I mean, he has not had a single problem of any kind in prison for 25 years,” Bruce Afran, Acoli’s attorney, told The Washington Post. “Frankly, the reason they’re denying him parole is because a state trooper was killed. I can think of no other reason for this treatment,” he said.
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 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, 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.
Tony Ciavolella, a board spokesman, told the Post: “Denials of his parole were decided upon impartially, fairly, and . . . in accordance with statutory and administrative regulations.”
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 is currently appealing that decision. “Sundiata’s case is a glaring example of the need for parole reform in New Jersey and throughout the United States,” said Joseph J. Russo, Deputy Public Defender in the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender’s Appellate Section.
In 2020, Acoli contracted Covid-19 and was hospitalized, his lawyers said, adding that he suffers from early-stage dementia and has hearing problems.