Black police groups call for ex-Black Panther jailed for 48 years to be released
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Ed Pilkington in New York, @edpilkington,Tue 24 Aug 2021
A coalition of current and retired Black police officers is calling for the release on parole of Sundiata Acoli, a former Black Panther member who has been incarcerated for 48 years for the 1973 murder of a New Jersey state trooper.
Four Black law enforcement groups have joined forces to press the case for Acoli’s parole almost half a century after he was arrested. In an amicus brief filed with the New Jersey supreme court, they call his continued imprisonment “an affront to racial justice” and accuse the parole board of violating the law by repeatedly refusing to set the prisoner free.
“Mr Acoli has spent more than half of his life in prison cells the size of a parking space, including nearly 20 years as a senior citizen … He should be granted parole,” the groups write.
Acoli is one of at least 11 former members of the Black Panther Party and its armed wing, the Black Liberation Army, who are still in prison for acts of violence committed largely in the late 1960s and 1970s. Many of the prisoners are approaching their half-century behind bars.
At 84, Acoli is the oldest of the former Black radicals still languishing in prison. He contracted Covid-19 last year from his cell in FCI Cumberland in Maryland, and is suffering from physical and mental impairments including gradual deterioration of his memory.
In a written communication with the Guardian, Acoli said that he was struggling with chronic degeneration of his hearing, eyesight, and mental and muscular capacity yet was receiving “little or no medical treatment” in prison.
“I am an 84-year-old man who’s been imprisoned since age 36 for almost 50 years, who now poses a threat not even to a flea, let alone public safety,” he said.
Acoli added: “My sentence is obviously too long. I am rapidly disintegrating before my family and friends’ eyes.”
When asked about the amicus brief, Acoli said: “The Black associations are simply expressing their opinion on what everyone already knows: that it’s time, actually past time, that I should be released.”
The intervention of the Black groups underscores a rift within police officer organizations. Powerful white-dominated law enforcement associations have been at the forefront of the battle to keep former Black Panthers incarcerated for decades.
In Acoli’s case, the New Jersey State Troopers Fraternal Association has called for him to remain “locked up and away from civil society for the rest of his life”.
Acoli, who was born Clark Edward Squire, was given a life sentence in 1974 for the murder of New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster the previous year. Acoli had been driving along the New Jersey Turnpike together with two other members of the Black Liberation Army, Assata Shakur (born JoAnne Chesimard) and Zayd Malik Shakur (James Costan) when they were stopped by a state trooper, James Harper, over a defective taillight.
In the ensuing melee, shots were fired. Foerster was struck with four bullets and died, and Zayd Malik Shakur was also killed. Harper was wounded, and both Acoli and Assata Shakur were arrested after a police chase.
Shakur escaped and fled to Cuba, where she was granted asylum by the Cuban government. In 2013 she became the first woman to be put on the FBI’s “most wanted terrorists” list, and at age 74 she faces a $2m reward for information leading to her capture.
In the amicus brief, the four Black police officer groups make powerful arguments against Acoli’s continuing imprisonment. They point out that New Jersey has the greatest disparity in the nation between the incarceration rate of Black and white people – a gap of 12 to 1, according to the state’s Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission.
Almost two thirds of New Jersey prisoners serving life sentences are Black.
They also point out that prisoners on life sentences, like Acoli, tend to have the lowest recidivism rate of all classes of prisoner – and the rate falls further with age. Yet over the past 40 years the rate of prisoners granted release by the New Jersey parole board has plummeted – from 42% in the 1980s to just 7% between 2012 and 2019.
The Black groups accuse the parole board of obsessively focusing on whether Acoli has changed his radical political views rather than concentrating on the only issue they are required to consider – whether he poses a threat to the public should he be freed. The amicus brief says the board’s approach amounts to “extralegal punishment”.
Acoli first came up for parole in 1993, and on that occasion was not only denied but told he would have to wait another 20 years before he could reapply to the board. In 2014 he came close to walking free when a three-judge panel of the state appeals court ordered his release on grounds he posed no threat at all – only to have that ruling overturned by the state supreme court.
After a further round of parole board and court hearings, he is now appealing again to the New Jersey supreme court, which is expected to consider the case later this year or early next.
The four groups that have jointly written the amicus brief are: the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice, Blacks in Law Enforcement of America, the Black Police Experience and the Grand Council of Guardians.
Ronald Hampton, who served for 24 years as a police officer in Washington DC and who is now with Blacks in Law Enforcement of America, said that prolonged prison terms for the former Black Panthers highlighted racial distortions in the criminal justice system. “These long sentences are absurd. The system is meant to rehabilitate – prisoners who complete their sentences should be sent home, but that hasn’t worked for Black folks.”
'Friends Of The Court' File Six New Arguments For Elderly Sundiata Acoli's Release After 48 Years In Prison
Amici Briefs include Black Law Enforcement Groups Supporting His Release
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Humanity Communications Collective, Aug 24, 2021
TRENTON, N.J., Aug. 24, 2021 /PRNewswire/ -- Six new amicus curiae briefs were filed in the New Jersey Supreme Court late yesterday demonstrating the overwhelming legal arguments in favor of granting parole to Sundiata Acoli.
Acoli, 84, has been imprisoned since 1973 after conviction of first-degree murder in 1973 of a New Jersey State Trooper during a shootout on the state turnpike. Despite being eligible for parole since 1993, the state has denied Acoli's parole eight times, all of them based on procedural technicalities. Acoli is suffering from early dementia and continuing health deterioration exacerbated by his hospitalization with Covid-19 last year.
The briefs focus on issues that are germane to Acoli's case including Aging and Recidivism, Parole Board Bias, Due Process, Racial Disparities in Parole, and First Amendment violations.
"These briefs offer substantive arguments for the New Jersey Supreme Court to grant Sundiata parole as soon as possible," said Soffiyah Elijah, Executive Director of Alliance of Families for Justice, who has led the amici filings. "The breadth and depth of the issues in these briefs provide irrefutable points and compelling arguments based on the law and extensive research in support of release coupled with significant perspectives important to this case."
The briefs are intended to provide substantial credence to the case, which is awaiting oral arguments before the Court. Amicus curiae is the Latin phrase that means "friend of the court." Frequently, a person or group who is not a party to an action, but has a strong interest in the case, will petition the court for permission to submit a brief with the intent of influencing the court's decision. A seventh brief is also expected to be filed next week.
One of the most notable briefs includes four National Black law enforcement groups, who argue that Acoli has served enough time and should be released. The coalition of Black law enforcement organizations noted their commitment to community safety as well as research showing that elderly incarcerated people have low recidivism rates, the high financial cost to society to keep them imprisoned, and sentencing inequities based on race and racial stereotypes.
"A core component of our justice system includes treating people fairly under the law, in this case, Sundiata Acoli, has fulfilled his sentence but the state has not upheld its duty to prove his continued incarceration is either fair or warranted," said Ronald Hampton, Former Executive Director of the National Black Law Enforcement Association. "He has served his time, paid his debt to society, and deserves to be released."
In New Jersey, the burden of proof rests on the state to show that the defendant poses a risk to public safety or presents a substantial risk of recidivism and therefore cannot be eligible for parole.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission has reported a reincarceration rate of just 4% for those age 65 and older. The Justice Policy Institute has studied cohorts of released elderly inmates and found recidivism rates to be -3%.
Over the course of his sentence, Acoli has completed at least 100 different programs for self-improvement and vocational training. He has also participated in numerous programs designed to provide differing perspectives and modify behavior, and taught a cognitive-behavioral course "Criminal Thinking" for eight years, designed to teach other incarcerated individuals how to avoid recidivism upon their release. He has not had a disciplinary infraction in 25 years.
Prior to his incarceration, Sundiata Acoli attended college at the age of 16, majoring in mathematics, was employed as a computer analyst, working for NASA among other organizations, was a member of The Black Panther Party, and was active in voter registration efforts during the 1964 Freedom Summer.
For copies of the briefs along with background information, visit https://sundiataacolifc.org/
Click here to read the Black Law Enforcement Groups Amicus Brief
About Bring Sundiata Home Alliance
The Bring Sundiata Acoli Home Alliance is a project of the National Alumni Association of the Black Panther Party to successfully advocate for the release of Sundiata Acoli while educating the public about his legacy of struggle.
About Humanity Communications Collective
Humanity Communications Collective is a boutique, social justice-driven, strategic communications consulting group focused on making human and emotional connections. Learn more about at Humanitycom.com
Media Contact: Heather Hansen
Humanity Communications Collective
SOURCE Humanity Communications Collective
Clergy Pray for Sundiata Acoli
Dustin Racioppi | Trenton Bureau | Aug. 24, 2021
Buffeted by the quaking traffic of 18-wheelers and speeding trucks, a dozen faith leaders solemnly peered through chain-link fence over the New Jersey Turnpike on Monday afternoon at the onetime site of bloodshed.
Silently in the heat they prayed for Werner Foerster, the state trooper who was murdered on the turnpike 48 years ago in a shootout with Black power revolutionaries.
But they also prayed for one of the gunmen, Sundiata Acoli, now 84 and serving a life sentence in a federal prison in Maryland as part of an inmate sharing agreement.
The overpass, named in honor of Foerster, is a constant reminder of the violence that unfolded below.
For the Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders who gathered there, Acoli has come to symbolize a broken prison system — a man who has suffered the fallout of political calculations.
Advocates for Acoli have tried for years to win back his freedom, with near success in 2014 when an appellate court ordered his release. That decision was overturned by the New Jersey Supreme Court, which is now being asked once again to decide his fate.
"If we do not bring Sundiata home, he will die in prison," said the Rev. Lukata Mjumbe, a friend of Acoli's. "This tragedy has to end. How does tragedy end? It begins with forgiveness."
The law enforcement community has not been forgiving, having successfully advocated for the state Parole Board to deny Acoli's release. And Gov. Phil Murphy has declined to take executive action to release Acoli despite promising initial negotiations with his supporters.
The Supreme Court may be their last hope for Acoli to be free again.
New Jersey law contains a presumption of release at an individual’s first parole eligibility, but Acoli has been denied repeatedly over the years. Mjumbe calls it a "de facto death sentence" that partly reflects the "crisis" of mass incarceration in New Jersey.
Related: He's 84 and battled COVID. Should NJ inmate convicted in trooper's killing get out of prison?
Acoli is hardly alone in his denial. According to the Office of the Public Defender Parole Project, he is among the 91% of those serving life sentences who are denied parole their first time.
The problems go deeper than parole, advocates say.
When COVID-19 raced through prisons last year, New Jersey had the highest death rate among inmates in the country. "Our governor sat on his hands," said the Rev. Amos Caley, of the Reformed Church of Highland Park. Murphy later did release thousands of prisoners in the pandemic, "but it was a fight," Caley said.
"Our prison system reflects almost no progress in a blue state where we continue to elect people based on supposedly progressive values," he added.
Murphy's office did not respond to a message seeking comment.
While the Supreme Court considers Acoli's case, the faith leaders said, they intend to return to their communities advocating both for his release and for improvements in how prisoners are treated.
"We are the infrastructure of hope, we are the infrastructure of peace, we are the infrastructure or redemption, forgiveness," said the Rev. Toby Sanders, of Beloved Community in Trenton. "We are the bridge to the world that is, to the world that should be and will be."
Rabbi Arnold Gluck, of Temple Beth El in Hillsborough, said he joined Monday's vigil to advocate for Acoli's release and send a message "that there's another way forward, and that way forward is one of restorative justice."
Just as he and others want to see Acoli freed, the faith leaders said they aimed to bring new meaning to the Werner Foerster Overpass, a busy stretch on Route 18 in East Brunswick above the turnpike.
"We want to make this a place of healing — of recovery — and not revenge," the Rev. Herbert Daughtry said.
Mjumbe agreed, but said that such a change is necessary.
"We need a memorial that leads us to healing, and to reconciliation. We need a memorial that leads us to reach and stretch for justice," he said. "That's why we're here today."
Dustin Racioppi is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse.