BEYOND BERGEN: A man who helped kill a New Jersey State Police Trooper in cold blood in 1973 should be released on parole, a state appeals court ruled today — a decision that the Attorney General’s Office vowed to appeal.
Clark Edward Squire — Sundiata Acoli — was convicted along with fugitive Joanne Chesimard for gunning down NJSP Trooper Werner Foerster (above) during a New Jersey Turnpike stop.
Acoli was denied parole in 2011 — a ruling reversed by the Appellate Division of Superior Court, which wrote in its opinion that the New Jersey State Parole Board ignored evidence in Acoli’s favor and put excessive weight on a probation violation from decades ago.
“I am both disheartened and disappointed by the appellate decision in this matter,” NJSP Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes said today. “The mere passage of time should not excuse someone from the commission of such a horrendous act.
“My thoughts and prayers go out to the Foerster family whose lives have been deprived of a father and son,” Fuentes said.
Christopher Burgos, president of the state troopers’ fraternal association, called the court’s decision “unbelievably insane.”
“Once again the families affected who have lost loved ones in service to their state and country, law enforcement in New Jersey and the US have had wounds ripped open again 40 years later,” Burgos said, “and sadly we have seen the failure of our justice system to keep these violent offenders behind bars for the rest of their lives.
“We do not believe arguments that a person convicted of the murder of a law enforcement officer and conspiring the violent overthrow of the US Government can be rehabilitated, or considered to have paid their debt to society in full.”
Chesimard, 67, has reared her head now and then — at times, it seems, to thumb her nose at the United States — offering interviews to Newsday, among others, and writing books while living in Cuba as Assata Shakur.
Jurors convicted Chesimard of first degree murder in 1977, along with other crimes connected with the shootout. Additional charges followed — until she escaped from prison in 1979.
State Police several years ago increased the American bounty on her head to $2 million, the highest ever for a New Jersey fugitive. The FBI also made her the first woman on its list of most wanted terrorists.
Some say the bounty forced her to drop out of sight after living so openly that she listed her number in the phone book.
Chesimard’s face was on every police officer’s docket sheet in 1972, after the FBI alleged that she was the “revolutionary mother hen” of a Black Liberation Army cell that had conducted a “series of cold-blooded murders of New York City police officers” including the “execution-style murders” of four NYPD uniformed officers.
Some sources called her the leader and “soul of the Black Liberation Army” after the arrest of cofounder Dhoruba Moore. Former NY Police Commissioner Robert Daley said she “kept them moving, kept them shooting.”
At about 12:45 a.m. on May 2, 1973, NJSP Trooper James Harper stopped a Pontiac Lemans with Vermont plates for having a broken tail light and “slightly exceeding” the speed limit on the Turnpike.
Inside the stopped car was Chesimard, along with the drier, Zayd Malik Shakur (born James F. Costan), and Acoli.
Foerster pulled in behind as backup — barely 200 yards south of the Turnpike Authority administrator building at Exit 9.
Authorities said Acoli’s gun went off during a struggle with Foerster, wounding him, and that Chesimard took Foerster’s gun and finished the job by shooting him twice in the head as he lay on the ground.
This was after she shot NJSP Trooper James Harper.
Shakur was shot in the battle and died at the scene.
Chesimard was caught five miles down the road across from the Joyce Kilmer Service area.
Seven different trials followed, involving for bank robberies, kidnapping and other felonies. The results: three acquittals, a hung jury, a mistrial, and a single conviction.
Then came the Turnpike trial.
Headlines and spotlights followed the nine-week trial, which featured more than the usual stunts and drama from hyperbolic defense attorney William Kunstler.
Under cross-examination, Shakur was unable to explain how three clips of ammunition and 16 live shells had gotten into her shoulder bag.
The clincer in the trial was heard on tape, as Trooper Ronald Foster, the State Police radio operator, shouts into his microphone “They just shot Harper! Be on the lookout for this car!” and “It is a Pontiac. It’s got one tail light”
Jurors convicted Chesimard as an accomplice in the murders of both Foerster and Shakur — more than enough for the state of New Jersey, which penalizes such convictions with life prison terms.
Chesimard said she was “ashamed that I have even taken part in this trial” and that the jury was “racist” and had “convicted a woman with her hands up.”
She later was sentenced to 26 to 33 years in state prison, which were to be served consecutively with her mandatory life term.
It didn’t take long for Chesimard to bolt the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey, after three members of the Black Liberation Army visiting her drew concealed .45-caliber pistols, seized two guards as hostages and commandeered a prison van.
In New York, three days after her escape, thousands of demonstrators organized by the National Black Human Rights Coalition carried signs supporting her.
Chesimard flew to Cuba in 1984.
Before taking ill and transferring his presidential duties, Fidel Castro in May 2005 called Shakur a victim of racial persecution, saying the U.S. “wanted to portray her as a terrorist, something that was an injustice, a brutality, an infamous lie.”
Acoli, meanwhile, claimed he’d blacked out after being grazed by a bullet and couldn’t remember what happened.
A judge sentenced him in 1974 to life plus 24 to 30 years — a sentence that’s he been serving in Otisville.
The appellate judges noted that Acoli expressed remorse for Woerster’s death and hadn’t gotten into trouble behind bars in 18 years.
“Make no mistake, we are completely appalled by Acoli’s senseless crimes, which left a member of the State Police dead and another injured, as well as one of Acoli’s associates dead and the other injured,” the judges wrote. “But Acoli has paid the penalty under the laws of this State for his crimes.
“That Acoli is likely to engage in criminal activity in the future if paroled is not supported by the record.”
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