In Acoli v. New Jersey State Parole Board (A-73-20/083980) (Decided May 10, 2022), the Supreme Court of New Jersey granted parole to Sundiata Acoli, a former member of the Black Liberation Army who was convicted in the 1973 shooting death of a New Jersey state trooper, Werner Foerster. The court held that the New Jersey State Parole Board failed to support its decision that there is a substantial likelihood that Acoli, who is now eighty-five years old, will commit a crime if paroled.
Facts of Acoli v. New Jersey State Parole Board
Sundiata Acoli has been imprisoned for forty-nine years for his role in the murder of State Trooper Werner Foerster and the wounding of State Trooper James Harper in 1973. According to court documents, he has been a model inmate and infraction-free for more than twenty-five years. During that time, he has consistently received positive institutional reports from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, completed over a hundred programs and counseling sessions, served on the Honor Unit in his institution, taught a course to younger inmates on rational thinking and emotional control, and learned employable skills.
Since 1993, the New Jersey State Parole Board has denied Acoli parole every time he has become eligible for release. On each occasion, including in 2016 when Acoli was seventy-nine years old, the Parole Board determined that there was a substantial likelihood that Acoli would commit a crime if released. In 2010, the Parole Board denied Acoli parole, despite psychological assessments that favored his release. The Appellate Division overturned the Board’s decision, finding no substantial support in the record to justify Acoli’s continued imprisonment. It therefore ordered his release. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed on procedural grounds to allow the full Board to take firsthand witness testimony before deciding whether to grant parole to Acoli.
At a hearing in 2016, the Parole Board called only one witness, Acoli, who was then suffering from cardiovascular disease and hearing loss. Acoli testified that, if released, he planned to reside with his daughter, a Wall Street risk analyst, and his grandchildren. The State’s psychological expert, despite issuing a report less favorable than the previous one, described Acoli’s risk of committing another offense as low to moderate. The Board again denied parole, stating “that concerns remain that [Acoli] would commit a crime if released on parole.” The Board imposed a fifteen-year future eligibility term. The Appellate Division affirmed.
NJ Supreme Court Decision in Acoli v. New Jersey State Parole Board
The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed by a vote of 3-2. “The Parole Board has not established ‘by a preponderance of the evidence that there is a substantial likelihood that [Acoli] will commit a crime’ if placed on parole. The Board’s decision to deny Acoli parole is not supported by Acoli’s well-documented institutional record or by the overall psychological risk assessments,” Justice Barry Albin wrote. “The Parole Board’s decision is entitled to deference — but not blind deference.”
As the New Jersey Supreme Court explained, the Parole Act of 1979 provides that an inmate, such as Acoli, “shall be released on parole at the time of parole eligibility, unless [it is shown] by a preponderance of the evidence that there is a substantial likelihood that the inmate will commit a crime . . . if released on parole at such time.” Only when the risk of reoffending rises to “a substantial likelihood” may a parole-eligible inmate be denied parole.
The New Jersey Supreme Court went on to conclude that the Parole Board did not meet its burden of demonstrating that there was a substantial likelihood that, if released, Acoli would commit another crime.
“The Parole Board’s decision to deny Acoli parole is not supported by substantial evidence in the record or by a reasonable weighing of the relevant factors in N.J.A.C. 10A:71-3.11(b) that govern parole,” Justice Albin wrote. “Even under the most deferential standard of review, the Board has failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that there is a substantial likelihood that, if released on parole, Acoli will commit a crime. Acoli must be released because the statutory standards for granting parole have been met, without regard to extraneous factors like sympathy or passion or public opinion.”
In support of its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court noted that the Board’s
“hyper-focus” on Acoli’s recollection of the events obscured the actual issue to be decided — whether there was a substantial likelihood Acoli would reoffend if released. The court also emphasized that the Board “merely paid lip service” to the mitigating factors favoring parole set forth in N.J.A.C. 10A:71-3.11(b), such as his positive evaluations from the Federal Bureau of Prisons; decades-long infraction-free record; and his assignment to the Honor Unit of his institution. The court also found that Acoli’s advanced age was another highly relevant factor in determining whether the Board abused its discretion in denying parole, noting that studies have shown that as individuals age, their propensity to commit crime decreases and, in particular, that elderly individuals released from prison tend to recidivate at extremely low rates.
Based on the foregoing, the New Jersey Supreme Court concluded that Acoli must be released because the statutory standards for granting parole have been satisfied, without regard to extraneous factors like sympathy or passion or public opinion. “However much we may abhor the terrible crimes that Acoli committed, he was sentenced and punished according to the law in effect at the time of his offenses — and he is protected by that same law, the law that we are duty-bound to uphold, the law that gives him the right to be paroled today,” Justice Albin wrote. “not unmindful of the passions aroused by a sensational case of this nature and the immense pressures that come to bear on dutiful public officials. But neither government agencies nor our courts can bow to public outrage in enforcing the law. Even the most scorned member of our society is entitled to be sheltered by the protection of the law, no matter how hard and vengeful the winds of public opinion may blow.”