[Pnews] Sundiata Acoli - At site of NJ trooper's killing, clergy pray for release of 84-year-old convicted gunman

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Aug 24 11:37:48 EDT 2021

amp.northjersey.com <https://amp.northjersey.com/amp/8193583002> At site of
NJ trooper's killing, clergy pray for release of 84-year-old convicted
Dustin Racioppi - August 24, 2021

Buffeted by the quaking traffic of 18-wheelers and speeding trucks, a dozen
faith leaders solemnly peered through chain-link fence over the New Jersey
Turnpike on Monday afternoon at the onetime site of bloodshed.

Silently in the heat they prayed for Werner Foerster, the state trooper who
was murdered on the turnpike 48 years ago in a shootout with Black power

But they also prayed for one of the gunmen, Sundiata Acoli
now 84 and serving a life sentence in a federal prison in Maryland as part
of an inmate sharing agreement.

The overpass, named in honor of Foerster, is a constant reminder of the
violence that unfolded below.

For the Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders who gathered there, Acoli has
come to symbolize a broken prison system — a man who has suffered the
fallout of political calculations.

Advocates for Acoli have tried for years to win back his freedom, with near
success in 2014 when an appellate court ordered his release. That decision
was overturned by the New Jersey Supreme Court
which is now being asked once again to decide his fate.

"If we do not bring Sundiata home, he will die in prison," said the Rev.
Lukata Mjumbe, a friend of Acoli's. "This tragedy has to end. How does
tragedy end? It begins with forgiveness."

The law enforcement community has not been forgiving, having successfully
advocated for the state Parole Board to deny Acoli's release. And Gov. Phil
Murphy has declined to take executive action to release Acoli
despite promising initial negotiations with his supporters.

The Supreme Court may be their last hope for Acoli to be free again.

New Jersey law contains a presumption of release at an individual’s first
parole eligibility, but Acoli has been denied repeatedly over the years.
Mjumbe calls it a "de facto death sentence" that partly reflects the
"crisis" of mass incarceration in New Jersey.

Acoli is hardly alone in his denial. According to the Office of the Public
Defender Parole Project, he is among the 91% of those serving life
sentences who are denied parole their first time.

The problems go deeper than parole, advocates say.

When COVID-19 raced through prisons last year, New Jersey had the highest
death rate among inmates in the country. "Our governor sat on his hands,"
said the Rev. Amos Caley, of the Reformed Church of Highland Park. Murphy
later did release thousands of prisoners in the pandemic, "but it was a
fight," Caley said.

"Our prison system reflects almost no progress in a blue state where we
continue to elect people based on supposedly progressive values," he added.

Murphy's office did not respond to a message seeking comment.

While the Supreme Court considers Acoli's case, the faith leaders said,
they intend to return to their communities advocating both for his release
and for improvements in how prisoners are treated.

"We are the infrastructure of hope, we are the infrastructure of peace, we
are the infrastructure or redemption, forgiveness," said the Rev. Toby
Sanders, of Beloved Community in Trenton. "We are the bridge to the world
that is, to the world that should be and will be."

Rabbi Arnold Gluck, of Temple Beth El in Hillsborough, said he joined
Monday's vigil to advocate for Acoli's release and send a message "that
there's another way forward, and that way forward is one of restorative

Just as he and others want to see Acoli freed, the faith leaders said they
aimed to bring new meaning to the Werner Foerster Overpass, a busy stretch
on Route 18 in East Brunswick above the turnpike.

"We want to make this a place of healing — of recovery — and not revenge,"
the Rev. Herbert Daughtry said.

Mjumbe agreed, but said that such a change is necessary.

"We need a memorial that leads us to healing, and to reconciliation. We
need a memorial that leads us to reach and stretch for justice," he said.
"That's why we're here today."

*Dustin Racioppi is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited
access to his work covering New Jersey’s governor and political power
structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today. *
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