Former Black panther member seeking parole after almost 5 decades

Sundiata Acoli has been denied parole eight times and is serving a life sentence

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Lawyers for Sundiata Acoli, born Clark Edward Squire, have moved to have the former Black Panther party member released from prison after he has served decades behind bars.

Acoli’s legal team said that last year, Acoli contracted COVID-19 and was hospitalized, which resulted in dramatic weight loss. They also said he suffers from hearing loss and early-stage dementia. In total, since his 1974 conviction, Acoli has been denied parole eight times, according to the Washington Post.

Read More: A history of radical Black self-care and the impact of the Black Panther Party

“You can have someone elderly who may still be dangerous in some rare cases, but that is not this man. I mean, he has not had a single problem of any kind in prison for 25 years,” said Acoli’s attorney, Bruce Afran, according to the news outlet. “Frankly, the reason they’re denying him parole is because a state trooper was killed. I can think of no other reason for this treatment.”

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In 1973,  Trooper Werner Foerster was killed during a shootout during a traffic stop. Acoli was in the car, along with two passengers, Assata Shakur and Zayd Malik Shakur. Trooper James Harper, who stopped the vehicle for a damaged taillight, called for backup and was joined by Foerster, who found an ammunition magazine for an automatic pistol on Acoli, according to the report. 

A gun fight between the three people in the car and the officers resulted in two deaths and multiple injuries. The Post reported Foerster was shot four times — twice in the head by his own service weapon and Harper was wounded. Assata Shakur and Acoli were later arrested and Zayd Shakur was found dead.

Acoli and the surviving Shakur were both convicted of the murder of Foerster in separate trials. According to the news outlet, Shakur claimed she was shot and wounded with her hands up and was unable to fire the fatal shots. Acoli said he too was shot and blacked-out with zero memory of the night’s events.

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In 1974, Acoli was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 25 years. He entered prison at 36 and is now 84-years-old as he pleas for his freedom to the New Jersey Supreme Court. According to Afran, each time he is denied, the reasoning is the same: “he hasn’t done enough psychological counseling; he doesn’t fully admit to his crime, or he hasn’t adequately apologized for it,” according to the Post.

Tony Ciavolella, a board spokesman, said, “Denials of his parole were decided upon impartially, fairly, and . . . in accordance with statutory and administrative regulations,” according to the outlet.

In 2014, a state appellate panel ruled he should be released, however, the state Attorney General’s office contested. The case was sent back to the board, and again, denied. He is now appealing that decision.

“Sundiata’s case is a glaring example of the need for parole reform in New Jersey and throughout the United States,” said Joseph J. Russo, Deputy Public Defender in the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender’s Appellate Section.

Al Della Fave, spokesman for the New Jersey Association of Former Troopers, said that in its December 2019 decision, the New Jersey Appellate Court backed-up the parole board’s conclusion that Acoli, “lacked insight into his criminal behavior, denied key aspects of his crimes and minimized his criminal conduct and anti-social behavior,” according to the news outlet.

“The Former Troopers Association of New Jersey finds it is extremely difficult to believe that in less than one-years’ time, Inmate Acoli has miraculously found remorse, accepted rehabilitation, or even offered a sincere admission of his actions in the inhumane murder of Trooper Foerster.”

According to the Sundiata Acoli Speaks website, he was declared a political prisoner in September 1979 by the International Jurist.

Words for Acoli from Assata Shakur are presented on the site:

I want so much for Sundiata to know how much he is loved and respected. I want him to know how much he is appreciated by revolutionaries all over the world. I want Sundiata to know how much he is cherished by African people, not only in the Americas, but all over the Diaspora. I want him to know how much we admire his strength, his courage, his kindness, and compassion. Sundiata loves freedom and we must struggle for the life and freedom of Sundiata,” she said.

2017 Panorama Music Festival - Day 2
NEW YORK, NY – JULY 29: Noname performs onstage at the Pavilion during the 2017 Panorama Music Festival – Day 2 at Randall’s Island on July 29, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for Panorama)

In 1979, Assata Shakur escaped prison and fled to Cuba where she was granted political asylum. Rapper Noname recently shared petitions on social media for Sundiata Acoli and others after the film Judas and the Black Messiah sparked new-interest in the Black Panther party.

“I hope we use this renewed interest in prominent black radicals as momentum to get all political prisoners FREE! Hollywood won’t advocate for them. that’s up to us! sign petition below,” she wrote on Twitter, sharing a thread of resources. She continued, “Sundiata is a former Black Panther Party member, who at every stage in his life has worked to help people.  Sundiata, like so many others, is a victim of the FBI’s COINTELPRO efforts.”

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