N.J. Supreme Court hears arguments for cop killer's freedom
October 13, 2015, 4:42 PM Last updated: Wednesday, October 14, 2015, 12:13 PM
By SALVADOR RIZZO
state house bureau |
A man convicted of killing a state trooper four decades ago is asking the state Supreme Court to uphold a ruling that granted him parole last year.
The court heard oral argument Tuesday in the case of Sundiata Acoli, now 78, who received a life sentence for killing trooper Werner Foerster during a chaotic midnight shootout on the Turnpike in 1973. Known as Clark Edward Squire at the time, Acoli was one of three members of the Black Liberation Army who faced off against Foerster and another trooper who was injured but not killed.
Trooper Werner Foerster
One of Acoli’s accomplices was Joanne Chesimard, a fugitive who was placed on the FBI’s “most wanted” list in 2013. She was convicted alongside Acoli, but escaped from a Hunterdon County prison in 1979 and is now living in Cuba.Related: Kelly: N.J. cop killer Chesimard living as a ‘ghost’ in Havana
The state Parole Board has denied four of Acoli’s applications to be released from prison since 1993. A New Jersey appeals court reversed one of those rulings last year, finding that Acoli no longer posed a risk to the public after reaching old age in prison.
The Supreme Court, however, is focused on a separate issue: Whether New Jersey’s appellate court even has the authority to parole some inmates convicted of murder.
Attorneys for Governor Christie’s administration argue that the appeals court went too far in ordering Acoli’s release. State law requires that murder convicts go before the full Parole Board for an exhaustive final interview before being released. Acoli did not because his parole application could be denied without that interview. Instead of releasing him outright, the appeals court should have ordered the final hearing at the Parole Board, the state argues.
“The full parole board hearings are extremely in-depth, sometimes hours and hours long,” said Lisa Puglisi, an assistant state attorney general arguing against Acoli. They are designed to measure how inmates “have internalized what they’ve learned, how they’ve taken steps to reduce the risk of recidivism,” she said.
Acoli’s attorney, Bruce Afran, argued that the full Parole Board already conducted an “expanded review” of all the documents in the case, even if it skipped the in-person hearing. The only thing left for the Parole Board to weigh would be a statement by the victim’s family, if they chose to provide one.
“There really is no evidence to support the denial of parole,” Afran said. “It would be unjust to impose this process in the end for an inmate who has gone through this for years.”
In ruling to release Acoli last year, the three-judge appeals panel noted that he had observed good behavior in prison since 1996 and “completed at least 100 different programs for self-improvement.”
A psychologist recommended parole for Acoli, the court said. The appeals panel said the Parole Board “ignored Acoli's explanations of why he has turned from violence … and discounted all the positive information presented, including the opinion of the evaluating psychologist.”
Although he has expressed remorse for his role in Foerster’s murder, Acoli has maintained since his trial in 1974 that he “blacked out” amid the gunfire and does not remember who killed the trooper. Among other reasons for rejecting Acoli’s application, the Parole Board found that this version of events did not square with the facts and was a sign that Acoli was “still in denial of the execution-style killing.”
Two justices of the Supreme Court seemed reluctant to allow Acoli’s release without a final hearing by the Parole Board.
Justice Anne Patterson said that in New Jersey’s law outlining parole conditions for murder convicts, “We see a legislative intent that there be a voice for the victims at the stage of release.”
In Acoli’s case, if he were to be released without the full hearing, “the victims are suddenly out of the picture.” “How would that possibly make sense?” Patterson asked.
Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wondered whether the appeals court had overstepped its bounds. “How can the Appellate Division take upon itself greater authority, greater procedural room to act?” she asked.
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