The New Jersey Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the state to free Sundiata Acoli, rejecting the state Parole Board’s claims that the 85-year-old should stay in prison for the 1973 slaying of a state trooper.
The ruling, split 3-2 along party lines, brings to a close a decades-long battle by Acoli’s supporters to release him 49 years after he first went to prison for gunning down Trooper Werner Foerster during a car stop for a broken taillight.
“We are here wiping away tears of joy,” supporter Heather Hansen told the New Jersey Monitor.
Civil rights attorney Soffiyah Elijah has advocated for Acoli’s release for years and celebrated the “freedom that is rightfully his.”
“We strongly hope that Mr. Acoli’s freedom will bring attention to the thousands of elders like him trapped in the New Jersey prison system,” Elijah said.
Acoli has been eligible for parole since 1993, but the Parole Board has denied his release eight times, claiming he poses a risk to reoffend. During arguments before the state Supreme Court in January, the state Attorney General’s Office echoed that claim.
But the state’s top court, in a decision written by Justice Barry T. Albin, declared the board’s parole denial “so wide of the mark and manifestly mistaken” that the court had to intervene to ensure the “interests of justice.”
Bound by law
The court was not motivated by sympathy or compassion, Albin said. Rather, Acoli must be released because “the statutory standards for granting parole have been met,” Albin wrote.
“However much we may abhor the terrible crimes that Acoli committed, he was sentenced and punished according to the law in effect at the time of his offenses — and he is protected by that same law, the law that we are duty-bound to uphold, the law that gives him the right to be paroled today,” Albin wrote.
Had Acoli committed his crime today, he would have been sentenced to die in prison.
In 1996, then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman signed a law mandating life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for anyone convicted of killing an on-duty officer. Gov. Phil Murphy and acting Attorney General Matt Platkin pointed to that law in statements saying Tuesday’s ruling “disappointed” them.
“I profoundly wish this law had been in place when Acoli was sentenced in 1974,” 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.”
A life-without-parole sentence “reflects the heinous nature of that crime,” 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.”
Albin acknowledged the public pressure officials face in such a “sensational” case but said the court must follow the law that was in place when Acoli committed his crime.
“Neither government agencies nor our courts can bow to public outrage in enforcing the law,” he wrote. “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.”
Justices Fabiana Pierre-Louis and Jose L. Fuentes joined Albin’s opinion.
Justices Lee A. Solomon and Anne M. Patterson dissented, with Solomon writing that they defer to the expertise of the Parole Board and would have intervened only if they were “thoroughly convinced that a miscarriage of justice has occurred.”
“We have never so jadedly scrutinized a decision by the Parole Board in the way the majority does today,” Solomon said, adding: “We cannot say we are in a better position than the Parole Board to decide Acoli’s fate.”
Acoli still regards himself as a political prisoner and has blamed Foerster’s death on the “friendly fire” of another trooper — a version of events that “is clearly fabricated,” Solomon noted.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner did not participate in the decision.
Acoli’s supporters have argued that he’s a sick old man who’s struggling with dementia and hearing loss and incapable of reoffending.
They also argue Acoli has had no disciplinary infractions in more than 25 years, has passed multiple psychological tests, has taken more than 150 educational courses in prison, and has taught a critical thinking class for other inmates on how to avoid reoffending.
In 2014, an appeals panel ruled the Parole Board failed to show Acoli was likely to reoffend if released and ordered his parole, but the Supreme Court reversed that decision on procedural grounds and ordered a full parole board hearing. The board denied Acoli parole in 2016, but Acoli’s supporters continued fighting for his release.
Tuesday’s ruling reverses the board’s denial. It’s unclear how soon Acoli will be released. He plans to live with his daughter and grandchildren.
Acoli has been in federal custody and now is incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland. Parole Board spokesman Tony Ciavolella said the board is “taking the appropriate steps” to carry out the court’s order.
Parole reform targeted
Reformers have held Acoli’s case up as an example of why the state Parole Board needs reform.
In a September report calling for more oversight, the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender said the board routinely refuses to release parole-eligible inmates from prison, leaving many people languishing behind bars far longer than sentencing judges intended.
Joseph J. Russo co-chairs the Office of the Public Defender Parole Project and argued for Acoli’s release on behalf of the public defender.
On Tuesday, he applauded the court for recognizing the Parole Board failed to consider studies showing recidivism risks fall as people age.
“The court faithfully applied the 1979 Parole Act, which contains a presumption of release,” said Russo, the office’s first assistant public defender. “The court further recognized that the board ignored overwhelming evidence that Mr. Acoli is rehabilitated, deeply remorseful, and deserving of release. This is a major opinion.”
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