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Former Black Panther Sundiata Acoli To Be Released From Prison, After Almost 50 Years

Former Black Panther Sundiata Acoli To Be Released From Prison, After Almost 50 Years

Sundiata Acoli, a former Black Panther member who was convicted of murder in 1974 and denied parole several times, will now be released. Acoli was granted release by the New Jersey Supreme Court, which determined that he was no longer a danger to the public.

Acoli, 85, was sentenced to life in prison in 1973 for the murder of a New Jersey state policeman after a gunfight in which Assata Shakur, Tupac Shakur’s self-exiled aunt, was also detained. In 1979, Shakur escaped to Cuba, where she was granted political refuge. Since 1992, Acoli had been eligible for parole but had been denied numerous times.

When the struggle for Black liberation in the United States was at its pinnacle in the 1970s, militant groups like Philadelphia-based MOVE, founded by John Africa in 1972, and the Black Panther Party, founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in late October 1966, arose. The Black Liberation Army was the militant branch of the Black Panthers.

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On May 2, 1973, Acoli, a member of the Black Liberation Army, was driving shortly after midnight when he was stopped by a state trooper, James Harper, for a “defective taillight.” Acoli was then in the van with two other members of the Black Liberation Army, Assata Shakur and Zayd Malik Shakur. Harper was joined at the scene by another trooper, Werner Foerster. On Acoli, Foerster discovered an ammunition magazine for an automatic weapon. A firefight erupted, in which Foerster was killed and Harper was injured.

Zayd Malik Shakur was found dead near the automobile, while Assata Shakur was detained. Acoli escaped but was apprehended many hours later. In separate trials, Acoli and Assata Shakur were found guilty of Foerster’s murder. Acoli claimed he had no recollection of what had happened after being hit by a bullet. Acoli was convicted of first-degree murder in 1974 and sentenced to life in prison with a 25-year prospect of release. In 1992, Acoli became eligible for parole, but he was not allowed to attend his own hearing.

He has been rejected parole eight times in total. According to the Washington Post, his lawyer, Bruce Afran, claimed that each time he is refused, the rationale provided is the same: “he hasn’t done enough psychiatric counseling; he doesn’t fully admit to his crime, or he hasn’t adequately apologized for it.” A state appellate tribunal decided in 2014 that Acoli should be released due to his exemplary behavior since 1996. However, the state Attorney General’s office objected, and the case was remanded to the board. It turned down Acoli’s request once more. Acoli began an appeal against the decision.

According to the BBC, after being repeatedly denied release, New Jersey’s Supreme Court has finally voted 3-2 to overrule a parole board decision. The judges described Acoli’s prison record as “exemplary,” noting that he completed 120 courses while incarcerated, had positive reviews from prison officials, and engaged in counseling. The justices claimed that the parole board had “lost sight of the fact that its task was partly to determine the man Acoli had become.”

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Activists now hope that Acoli’s release will draw attention to other elderly Black Panthers still imprisoned in the United States.

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