A man convicted in the shooting death of a New Jersey state trooper in a crime that still provokes strong emotion among law enforcement more than 40 years later was ordered released on parole by a state appeals court Monday.
Sundiata Acoli was known as Clark Edward Squire when he was convicted of the 1973 slaying of Trooper Werner Foerster during a stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. Now in his mid-70s, Acoli was denied parole most recently in 2011, but the appellate judges reversed that ruling Monday.
The panel found that the parole board ignored evidence favorable to Acoli and gave undue consideration to past events such as a probation violation that occurred decades earlier.
One of the three people in the car when it was stopped was Joanne Chesimard, who also was convicted of Foerster's slaying but eventually escaped to Cuba and is now known as Assata Shakur. Last year, state and federal authorities announced a $2 million reward for information leading to her capture, and the FBI made her the first woman on its list of most wanted terrorists. She and Acoli were members of black militant organizations.
At the news conference last year announcing the increased reward for Shakur, Col. Rick Fuentes, superintendent of the New Jersey state police, called the case "an open wound."
"I am both disheartened and disappointed by the appellate decision in this matter," Fuentes said Monday through a spokesman. "The mere passage of time should not excuse someone from the commission of such a horrendous act."
According to court documents, Acoli's gun went off during a struggle with Foerster, who had responded as backup after another officer pulled over the car for a broken tail light. The state contended Chesimard shot Trooper James Harper, wounding him, then took Foerster's gun and shot him twice in the head as he lay on the ground. A third man in the car, James Costen, died from his injuries at the scene.
Acoli has claimed he was grazed by a bullet and blacked out, and couldn't remember the exact sequence of events. He was sentenced in 1974 to life plus 24 to 30 years. He currently is in prison in Otisville, New York, about 75 miles northwest of New York City.
The appellate judges wrote Monday that the parole board ignored a prison psychologist's favorable report on Acoli and the fact that he had expressed remorse for the trooper's death and had had no disciplinary incidents in prison since 1996. They also faulted the board for giving too much weight to Acoli's previous criminal record and an unspecified probation violation, which occurred several decades before the board's decision.
"Make no mistake, we are completely appalled by Acoli's senseless crimes, which left a member of the State Police dead and another injured, as well as one of Acoli's associates dead and the other injured," the judges wrote. "But Acoli has paid the penalty under the laws of this State for his crimes."
Bruce Afran, an attorney who argued on behalf of Acoli, said his client was looking forward to living with his daughter and has been offered a job as a paralegal.
"He's paid his penalty," Afran said. "Keeping him longer in prison would not bring back Trooper Foerster, it would simply cause more cruelty."
Christopher Burgos, president of the state troopers' fraternal association, called the court's decision "unbelievably insane."
"Once again the families affected who have lost loved ones in service to their state and country, law enforcement in New Jersey and the US have had wounds ripped open again 40 years later, and sadly we have seen the failure of our justice system to keep these violent offenders behind bars for the rest of their lives," he wrote in an email.
Through a spokesman, the state attorney general's office said it would appeal the decision and could seek a stay that, if granted, would postpone Acoli's release.