Acoli v. New Jersey State Parole Bd., Decided by a Split Appellate Division Panel, Will Likely Return to the Supreme Court

Acoli v. New Jersey State Parole Bd., 462 N.J. Super. 39 (App. Div. 2019). As Judge Fasciale’s majority opinion in this case today states, “[i]n 1973, Sundiata Acoli murdered State Trooper Werner Foerster and assaulted State Trooper James Harper.” A jury found him guilty of murder, atrocious assault and battery, armed robbery, and other crimes. He was given a sentence that amounted to life plus 24-30 years.

When Acoli became eligible for parole, the Parole Board conducted a “paper hearing” and denied parole. Acoli appealed, and the case went to the Supreme Court. In Acoli v. New Jersey State Parole Bd., 224 N.J. 213 (2016), the Court remanded to the Board for purposes of conducting a full testimonial hearing. Following the hearing, the Board denied parole. Acoli again appealed, and today the Appellate Division upheld that decision by a 2-1 vote. Joining Judge Fasciale was Judge Moynihan. Judge Rothstadt dissented.

Among other things, the two opinions differed as to whether Acoli, who is now over eighty years old and whom both opinions labeled “a model prisoner” for at least twenty years, is a threat to re-offend, and as to the effect of seemingly contradictory testimony by Acoli as to who shot Trooper Foerster and whether Acoli was conscious at the time. Given the dissent, Acoli has the ability to appeal to the Supreme Court as of right. Presumably, he will do so.

Cases involving parole applications by killers of police officers are always controversial and highly charged. The saga of Thomas Trantino, which generated at least six published opinions as to his parole for two decades (see, e.g., Trantino v. New Jersey State Parole Bd., 166 N.J. 113 (2001); In re Parole Application of Trantino, 89 N.J. 347 (1982)), is instructive in that regard. The Supreme Court will have its hands full, and will be closely watched, when this case reaches that Court.