A New Jersey court has granted parole to the oldest former member of the Black Panthers after nearly five decades in prison.
Sundiata Acoli, 85, was sentenced to life in prison in 1974 for the murder of a police officer the previous year. Acoli was 35 years old at the time of the incident.
Founded in 1966, the Black Panthers were a revolutionary black nationalist and socialist group espousing armed self-defence especially against police.
The shooting that led to Acoli’s imprisonment followed a routine traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. The ensuing gunfight left a New Jersey State trooper, Werner Foerster, dead, and another wounded.
At the time, Acoli was traveling with Assata and Malik Shakur, two members of the Black Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Black Panthers. He was arrested after a police chase alongside Assata Shakur.
Acoli has long maintained that he lost consciousness after being hit in the crossfire, and awoke to Foerster’s dead body. After being repeatedly denied parole since first becoming eligible 29 years ago, New Jersey’s Supreme Court has now voted 3-2 to overturn a parole board ruling.
In a written opinion on Acoli’s case, the court’s justices said that his prison record has been “exemplary” and that he had completed 120 programmes behind bars.
In 2010, a state-assigned psychologist determined that Acoli “appeared remorseful” and had expressed “deep regret” for his role in Foerster’s death. The psychologist’s comments were echoed by Acoli at a parole board hearing six years later.
“I deeply regret the actions that transpired,” he said. “Those were turbulent and fearful times.”
But the parole board repeatedly denied his parole attempts, arguing that he could still pose a threat to the public.
Writing for the majority, New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Barry T Albin wrote that the board’s views were “not supported by substantial credible evidence”.
Among those who have spoken out against Acoli’s release is New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, who said in a statement that anyone who kills a police officer should “remain behind bars until the end of their life”.
At least 12 aging members of the Black Panthers are still imprisoned in the US.
The member he was arrested with, Assata Shakur- previously known as JoAnne Chesimard – has been a fugitive since a prison escape in 1977.
She is believed to be in Cuba and remains on the FBI’s most-wanted list. She remains to this day a hero to many US left-wing activists.