Cops' support spotlights race issues in ex-Black Panther's parole case

REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

(Reuters) - An unusual coalition is banding together in a petition to release an 84-year-old former Black Panther convicted for his role in the killing of a police officer.

Sundiata Acoli was sentenced in 1974 to life without the possibility of parole until after 25 years for the first-degree murder of New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster. The officer was killed in a shootout after he and another trooper stopped Acoli for a defective taillight.

Acoli has maintained that he wasn't responsible for killing Foerster. He has speculated that the other cop shot Foerster accidentally, while he was in a hand-to-hand struggle with Acoli, according to a 2019 state court decision.

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Acoli’s supporters include the ACLU of New Jersey, the Center for Constitutional Rights and even four Black law enforcement organizations, including the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice and the Blacks in Law Enforcement of America. That group filed a brief last month in the case co-authored by lawyers at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School.

The amicus briefs call attention to widespread misconceptions about recidivism and an overlooked aspect of criminal justice that involves racial disparity -- parole decisions. Those are crucial issues with regard to reducing bias in our criminal justice systems because of the large number of Black and Latino Americans, including many elderly people, serving overly punitive sentences, who are unlikely to re-offend and are costly to incarcerate.

Acoli has been incarcerated for nearly 50 years and has been denied parole numerous times since 1993, according to the coalition of organizations supporting his petition.

New Jersey State Parole Board spokesman Tony Ciavolella told me the board has no comment about the petition to release Acoli. He said Acoli has been denied parole four times, not eight, the number his lawyers have said is accurate.

Acoli's supporters argue that the repeated denials contradict New Jersey's parole statute, which grants a presumption of release once inmates reach their eligibility date, unless the board can prove the person is substantially likely to re-offend.

The police groups say the board failed to meet that burden, and improperly focused on whether Acoli is sufficiently remorseful and has been sufficiently punished. They also raise First Amendment concerns, arguing that the parole board's questioning of Acoli reveals a deep-seated discomfort and anger because his conviction involved a cop's death, “in connection with an armed revolutionary Black political organization.”

I asked Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice, about what makes this case different than other parole petitions. Elijah has worked with Sundiata for 30 years, and coordinated the filing of amici briefs in the case.

REUTERS: Why do you think the board has repeatedly denied Acoli parole?

ELIJAH: Without meaning to sound flippant, that's probably best put to them. The law is very clear that the burden of proving someone isn't fit to be released is on the board, not the person petitioning. But this board has persistently ignored that standard and shifted that burden to Mr. Acoli, in violation of the law, in our view.

REUTERS: What’s different about Acoli’s case, in your view?

ELIJAH: There are a few things. But importantly, it’s clear from the transcript of Mr. Acoli’s parole hearings that there was a litany of interrogation about organizations he belonged to and political writings from 50 years ago – which tells us nothing about someone who is 84 and their odds of recidivism. Regardless, his incarcerated record speaks for itself: He’s gotten not one disciplinary ticket in 25 years and was chosen by the government to teach critical thinking in prison -- a class about preventing recidivism -- which certainly speaks to his character.

REUTERS: What’s the significance of having Black law enforcement groups joining your efforts?

ELIJAH: It’s important that we have any law enforcement groups, regardless of the officers’ race, because up until now they have routinely come out against Mr. Acoli and anybody convicted of what’s labeled as “politically motivated offenses.”

That four groups of national stature signed on is significant, and layered on top is the fact that they’re Black. They’ve experienced not only racism in the country, but within their chosen careers, so in other words, they put a spotlight on the elephant in the room.

REUTERS: Do you think this case is simply about punishing Acoli for his politics, and the death of a cop?

ELIJAH: I’m sure it plays a major role. That said, it so happens the state parole board’s record on releasing people is horrible, generally. And I think that’s outrageous because release on parole is a presumptive right petitioners have when they reach eligibility, unless the parole board can meet its own burden of showing a substantial risk of recidivism.

REUTERS: What would it mean to win -- to have Acoli freed?

ELIJAH: It would give hope to all the people who’ve been improperly denied by the parole board.

It’s important to remember this is not a situation where anybody’s asking for a favor – Mr. Acoli has served his time, and the law is squarely on his side, especially with regard to propensity to re-offend. So it’s important that the court simply apply the rules, and send a message that the parole board cannot continue to ignore the law.

Opinions expressed here are those of the author. Reuters News, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence and freedom from bias.

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Hassan Kanu writes about access to justice, race, and equality under law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years reporting on mostly employment law. He lives in Washington, D.C. Reach Kanu at