Ex-Panther, Now 80, Sees His Hopes for Freedom Fade as Board Again Denies Parole

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Former Black Panther, Sundiata Acoli, who was sentenced to life in prison for the death of a N.J. state trooper. Photo courtesy of
Former Black Panther, Sundiata Acoli, who was sentenced to life in prison for the death of a N.J. state trooper. Photo courtesy of

Just one week shy of his 80th birthday, former Black Panther Sundiata Acoli got the news he’d be spending the next 15 years of his life in jail. Acoli, who is serving a life sentence for the 1973 murder of a New Jersey state trooper, was denied release from prison yet again.

According to The Guardian, New Jersey state police have fiercely opposed the former Black Panther’s release from jail since he first became eligible for parole in the fall of 1992. Still, this latest denial was a shocking blow to supporters who’ve fought time and time again to get him out of prison.

“This is a punch to the gut,” said Soffiyah Elijah, an attorney and executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice ,who has represented Acoli for many years and successfully handled countless other cases to free former Black Panthers.

On that fateful day in May 1973, Acoli and his companions, Assata Shakur and Zayd Malik Shakur, were ambushed by state troopers while driving on the New Jersey turnpike. Both Zayd Malik and state trooper Werner Foerster were killed in the gunfire, while Assata Shakur was wounded and arrested. She later escaped to Cuba and has been there under asylum since 1979.

Acoli was captured by authorities days later.

According to SundiataAcoli.org, the ex-Black Panther and Black Liberation Army member was ultimately convicted in Foerster’s death and sentenced to life plus 30 years in the Trenton State Prison. In July 1987, he was transferred to the federal maximum-security prison in Leavenworth, Kansas.

The judicial board swiftly denied Acoli’s request for parole when he first became eligible for release in 1992, ignoring the fact that he’d done excellent work while behind bars, had an outstanding academic and disciplinary record and received thousands of letters that spoke favorably of him, the website stated. Instead, he was handed a 20-year hit, the longest in New Jersey state history, that required he serve another 12 years before becoming eligible for parole again.

The Guardian reports that in 2014, a panel of New Jersey judges ordered the board to “expeditiously set conditions” for the ex-Panther’s release. The judges cited his good behavior, remorse for his involvement in the state trooper’s death and an expert’s testimony that Acoli now posed only a “low to moderate” risk of re-offending.

However, a higher court invalidated the the judges’ order in February — a decision New Jersey state police deemed “a victory for law enforcement.” According to The Guardian, the overturned order led to a new parole hearing in June, which was ultimately denied.

“[It was] primarily about the events on the turnpike and almost nothing about my many positive accomplishments,” Acoli wrote of the June hearing. He recalled one of the board members asking him, “Aren’t you angry that they broke Assata out of prison instead of you?” to which he responded, “I don’t or wouldn’t wish prison on anyone.”

In March 2015, Cuban officials issued their final word on Shakur, asserting that they would not extradite her back to the states. Atlanta Black Star reported that U.S. lawmakers and law enforcement have vigorously been trying to get their hands on Shakur, who has spent the past 30 years under the protection of the Cuban government, especially since President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced plans to normalize relations between the two countries last year.

Meanwhile, Acoli has spent the past four decades of his life locked up in “supermax” federal facilities.

“They are determined to bury him alive,” Elijah told The Guardian. “[But] we are equally determined to get him out.”

ABS has reached out to Elijah for further comment on Acoli’s previous requests for parole and efforts for his release but have not heard back yet.

 

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