The oldest imprisoned Panther was eligible for parole 29 years ago but was repeatedly denied in spite of ‘exemplary’ prison record

By Ed Pilkington

Sundiata Acoli, 85, the oldest former member of the Black Panthers still to be incarcerated for acts of violence during the 1970s Black liberation struggle, is finally to be released from prison after the New Jersey supreme court ruled that he was no longer a risk to public safety.

Acoli has been held captive for more than 49 years for the May 1973 shooting of New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster. He was found guilty the following year and sentenced to life plus 24 to 35 years.

The supreme court noted in its ruling that under the terms of his sentence, Acoli first became eligible for parole 29 years ago. On each occasion that he came before the panel his release was denied.

Yet for more than a quarter of a century his prison record has been “exemplary”, the judges said. He had completed 120 courses while in prison, participated in counseling, had a constructive rapport with prison staff and fellow inmates, and had positive evaluations from prison officials.

Twelve years ago, a state-assigned psychologist assessed Acoli’s progress in prison and concluded that he was deeply remorseful for Foerster’s death and that it was “time to seriously consider him for parole”. Despite that, his parole was denied; in his latest parole hearing he was still being classified a potential danger to society.

The parole board had “lost sight that its mission largely was to determine the man Acoli had become”, the supreme court judges concluded. It added that his age, at 85, was another important factor that the board had failed to consider given that elderly people released from prison have extremely low rates of reoffending.

Acoli, whose given name was Clark Edward Squire, was involved in an encounter with Foerster and another state trooper, James Harper, on 2 May 1973 after the car he was in was stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike for a broken taillight. He was traveling with two other members of the Black Liberation Army, Assata Shakur (previously JoAnne Chesimard) and Zayd Malik Shakur (James Costan).

In the ensuing melee, shots were fired, killing Foerster and Shakur. Harper was wounded and Acoli and Assata Shakur, also wounded, were arrested after a police chase.

In his defense, Acoli said that he was shot in the crossfire and had blacked out. When he came to, he found Foerster’s body on the ground nearby.

Members of the Black Panther party received extremely long sentences; at least 11 members are still in prison. Photograph: Jack Manning/Getty Images

Acoli was one of at least 12 former members of the Black Panthers and their armed wing, the Black Liberation Army, who are still in prison. Many are now approaching, or exceeding, half a century behind bars.

Last year Acoli wrote to the Guardian, describing himself as an 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. My sentence is obviously too long. I am rapidly disintegrating before my family and friends’ eyes.”

Soffiyah Elijah, a civil rights attorney and a lead advocate for Acoli, said that it was time now for him “to live the rest of his life in the loving care of his family and community”. She added that she hoped his release would bring attention “to the thousands of elders like him trapped in the New Jersey prison system”.

Bruce Afran, who has represented Mr. Acoli since 2011, including before the New Jersey supreme court, said: “After 50 years of imprisonment, the Supreme Court has brought an end to a tragic episode from the civil rights era and recognized that we have to be humane in our parole process and not practice vengeance,”.

Though Acoli’s release brings to a conclusion one of the unfinished stories of the Black Panther era, in another regard the narrative remains unresolved. After her arrest alongside Acoli in 1973, Assata Shakur escaped and fled to Cuba, where she has been granted asylum by the Cuban government.

She remains on the FBI’s most wanted list as a “domestic terrorist”, with a $2m reward on offer for information that leads to her capture.

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