A divided New Jersey Supreme Court on Tuesday granted parole to a former terrorist convicted in the 1973 death of a New Jersey state soldier, in a case that has resonated for decades and has been a thorny issue in US-Cuba relations.
Sundiata Akoli is in her mid-80s and had previously rejected several parole bids. His lawyers argued that he had been an ideal prisoner. and has counseled other prisoners for nearly three decades.
The state parole board had argued that Akoli was still at risk of committing future crimes and had not taken full responsibility for the death of Trooper Werner Foster.
Accolli’s more famous co-defendant, Joan Chesimard, was also convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, but escaped from prison in New Jersey in 1979. Now known as Asata Shakur, she was granted asylum in Cuba by then-President Fidel Castro. a fugitive.
With Chief Justice Stuart Rabner not participating in Tuesday’s 3-2 decision, the court held that the state parole board did not meet its required burden of demonstrating that Akoli had a substantial likelihood of committing another offence.
“No member of the Court disputes that Akoli has committed a horrific crime,” Justice Barry Albin wrote for the majority. “However, the issue is whether Akoli, after nearly five decades of imprisonment, has met the statutory demands governing his parole eligibility.”
Albin notes that if the crime had occurred today, Acoli would have been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, but New Jersey law at the time allowed parole.
Albin wrote, “Although the insignificant Acoli may be in the eyes of many because of the notoriety of his crime, he too deserves the protection of the law—and the fair and impartial administration of justice.”
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said in a statement that he was “extremely disappointed” by the decision. State Attorney General Matthew Platkin said in a statement: “I am grateful to the lawyers in my office who opposed Sundiata Akoli’s release and I am disappointed that she will be released on parole.”
Sofiyah Elijah, a civil rights lawyer who has advocated on Akoli’s behalf, praised the decision, saying, “The time has come for Mr. Akoli to spend the rest of his life in the loving care of his family and community.”
Acoli was known as Clark Edward Squire in 1973 when the car he was in was stopped for a broken taillight on the New Jersey Turnpike. According to court documents, Acoli’s gun went off during a conflict with Foster, who had responded as a backup.
The state argued that Shakur shot Trooper James Harper, wounded him, then took Foster’s gun and shot him twice in the head while lying on the ground. The third person in the car along with Akoli and Shakoor died on the spot. All three were members of a group known as the Black Liberation Army.
Akoli claims that he was hit by a bullet and fell unconscious, and did not remember the exact sequence of events. At his most recent parole hearing in 2016, he speculated for the first time that Foster may have been accidentally shot by Harper.
In a dissenting opinion, Justices Lee Solomon and Anne Patterson wrote that the parole board’s decision was supported by evidence and should be left unconfirmed.
“Our sole role is to ensure that the parole board does not abuse its discretion in decision-making,” Solomon wrote. “In the light of the Board’s clear view of the record, we cannot say that we are in a better position than the Parole Board to decide the fate of Akoli.”
Foster’s death and Shakur’s continued runaway status have resonated over the years and fueled a bipartisan agreement in Congress.
In 2013, state and federal officials announced a $2 million reward for information leading to her capture, and the FBI made her the first woman on its list of most wanted terrorists.
President Donald Trump demands that Cuba return him In 2017 he announced plans to reverse some of the Obama-era Cuban policies, an approach that was welcomed in New Jersey by Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez and then-Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
In 2005, Castro referred to Chesimard as a victim of “the fiercest repression against the black movement in the United States” and said she was “a true political prisoner”.