Caren Chesler – March 13, 2021
Sundiata Acoli, born Clark Edward Squire, is serving a life sentence for the May 2, 1973, murder of Trooper Werner Foerster during a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike. Acoli was driving just after midnight when another trooper, James Harper, stopped him for a defective taillight. Acoli and his two passengers, Assata Shakur, born JoAnne Chesimard, and Zayd Malik Shakur, born James Costan, were members of the Black Liberation Army.
Harper called for backup and was joined by Foerster, who discovered an ammunition magazine for an automatic pistol on Acoli, according to news reports of the trial and his appeals.
A gun battle erupted. Foerster was shot four times, twice in the head by his own service weapon, and Harper was wounded.
The three Black Liberation Army members drove five miles south on the Turnpike and pulled over. Assata Shakur was quickly arrested, and Zayd Malik Shakur was found dead near the car. Acoli fled into nearby woods, where he was captured about 30 hours later.
Both Acoli and Shakur, in separate trials, were convicted of the murder of Foerster.
Shakur has said she was shot and wounded with her hands up and couldn’t have killed Foerster. Acoli said at the time that he was hit by a bullet, blacked out and couldn’t remember what happened.
A jury convicted Acoli of first-degree murder in 1974 and sentenced him to life with the possibility of parole after 25 years. With prison credits, his parole date was pushed up to 1993 but he was denied. And he’s been denied parole four times in all.
Shakur escaped prison in 1979 and fled to Cuba where she was granted political asylum. She is on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list.
Attorneys for Acoli say nearly 50 years in jail is too long. Last year, their client contracted covid-19 and was hospitalized, losing 20 pounds, they said. He also has hearing problems and suffers from early-stage dementia.
“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 Bruce Afran, Acoli’s attorney. He noted that for years, the prison system — Acoli is in a federal prison in Maryland though he is technically a state prisoner — has trusted Acoli enough to allow him to teach a course to young inmates on avoiding recidivism.
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