In cop killer’s case, top court weighs recidivism fears against redemption

Sundiata Acoli is too sick to commit new crimes, his defenders say

By: - January 31, 2022 4:11 pm

Sundiata Acoli has been incarcerated for 49 years for the 1973 murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster during a traffic stop on the turnpike in East Brunswick. (Photo courtesy of the Bring Sundiata Acoli Home Alliance)

At 85, Sundiata Acoli is a sick old man and an obedient prison inmate, his hearing fading as quickly as dementia takes hold, his supporters say.

But Acoli is also a convicted cop killer whose words can’t be trusted and who could commit more crimes — at least in the eyes of the New Jersey State Parole Board, which has denied his requests to get out of prison eight times since he was first eligible for parole in 1993.

Monday, the New Jersey Supreme Court heard arguments in the decades-long battle over whether Acoli deserves freedom or death behind bars, as his defenders warn may happen. His next shot at parole is not until 2032, when he will be 95 years old.

Several attorneys argued for Acoli’s release, telling the justices the Parole Board failed to prove — as law requires — that he poses a “substantial likelihood of recidivism” if released.

Acoli hasn’t had a disciplinary infraction in decades, has passed multiple psychological tests, has taken more than 150 educational courses in prison, and even taught a critical-thinking class for other inmates on how to avoid reoffending, said his attorney, Bruce Afran.

“This is not what some people might think, a political appeal. And it’s not a liberal case. It’s actually a conservative case,” Afran said. “Because what’s really at issue is a question of the rule of law in New Jersey that governs parole. We’re really looking at a question of whether the board, and ultimately the courts, of course, adhere to the legislative directive as to how parole should be conducted.”

Afran added: “There’s no question of the gravity of the crime, and there’s no question of the tragedy that ensued. But anger among the board, or in some cases vengeance, or in some cases, desire not to let a cop killer out, cannot ever be the guidance for an agency.”

Attorneys Joseph Russo, Alexander Shalom, and Raymond Brown Jr. echoed Afran’s appeal for Acoli’s release on behalf of the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, and the New Jersey Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, respectively.

All argued recidivism drops drastically with age. The Vera Institute of Justice has found less than 1% of people older than 65 reoffend.

Yet the Parole Board has refused to free Acoli based on unsubstantiated fears of recidivism, Afran said.

“They look not at things relevant, but to paint a caricature of the Black man who’s a threat to us all,” he said.

Afran asked the court to release Acoli, rather than remanding the case back to the Parole Board.

Assistant Attorney General Stephanie Cohen, representing the Parole Board in insisting Acoli should remain behind bars, agreed fears of recidivism largely drove the board’s decisions in Acoli’s case.

“It is the board’s job to be critically concerned with recidivism,” Cohen said.

She pointed out Acoli, a former Black Panther, was 37 when he and two others got in the 1973 shootout that erupted when state troopers stopped their car for a broken taillight on the New Jersey Turnpike, leaving Trooper Werner Foerster dead.

“This was not a crime of youthful indiscretion,” Cohen said.

New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Barry Albin questions Assistant Attorney General Stephanie Cohen in a Jan. 31, 2022, hearing on Sundiata Acoli’s appeal for prison release. (Courtesy of New Jersey Courts)

Justice Barry Albin sparred with Cohen over her contention that Acoli has shown no remorse and denied guilt. Albin read aloud multiple lines from Acoli’s past pleas for release, in which he admitted his involvement, apologized, told the Parole Board he regretted his actions, and said he does not support violence.

“What more can he do?” Albin asked. “You don’t seem to credit his deeds. And you don’t credit his words.”

Cohen said the board does not believe Acoli’s sincerity.

“Being a model inmate does not indicate, necessarily, being a model citizen,” she added.

Cohen also pointed to Acoli’s assertion, when questioned by the Parole Board a few years ago, that “friendly fire” may have caused Foerster’s death. Such a comment shows his “inability to accept responsibility for the crime,” she said.

Acoli has testified he “blacked out” from a graze wound during the shootout, Afran said, and made the “friendly fire” comment only when the Parole Board asked him to speculate what killed Foerster. Foerster was killed by his own service weapon, although Acoli and his accomplices disagree on who wielded it.

Wednesday was the second time the state Supreme Court has heard Acoli’s case. In 2016, the justices denied Acoli parole in an appeal that focused on the statutory process that requires a convicted murderer to undergo a full hearing before the Parole Board before being freed. Albin dissented in the 2016 ruling.

It is unknown when the court will issue a ruling in Monday’s case.

Last week, Acoli’s supporters held a news conference to draw attention to Monday’s arguments, saying his continued incarceration shows how dysfunctional the parole system is.

“He’s been a model prisoner who’s been eligible for parole since 1993, and he has been denied his freedom time and again for no just cause,” said Rabbi Arnie Gluck of Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough.

Gluck added: “We call our prisons ‘correctional facilities,’ but when they are used unjustly to perpetuate the incarceration of the elderly, like Sundiata and others, mostly people of color, they are in fact houses of bondage, precincts of punishment, that make a mockery of the righteous aspiration to bring the renewal, the reconciliation, and the healing that is suggested by the word ‘correction.’ It is time for true correction.”

In a statement, state Sen. Tony Bucco said Acoli should not be released, saying he “needlessly executed an already seriously injured trooper with a shot to the head.”

“This cold-blooded killer deserves no more compassion than he showed for Trooper Foerster,” said Bucco (R-Morris).


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.