Justice is an elusive, definition-defying concept—notably because its parameters and underpinnings are subjective, open to individual interpretation.
But justice is not open for individual interpretation or receptive to public debate when tainted with the smell of racism, prejudice, or bias. This stench is recognized worldwide and profoundly disturbs all people, regardless of race, language, or origin.
Take, for example, the murder cases of Derek Chauvin and Sundiata Acoli.
Derrick Chauvin was a 44-year-old police officer with the Minneapolis Police Department on May 20, 2020. That day Chauvin, and three of his fellow MPD officers, responded to an alleged minor criminal offense involving a 46-year-old Black American man named George Floyd.
During the subsequent arrest attempt by the four officers, Floyd was handcuffed and wrestled to the ground. With Floyd restrained and lying face down on the street pavement, Chauvin placed a knee between Floyd’s head and neck. Over nine minutes, Chauvin kept his left knee pressed, with his full body weight, into Floyd’s neck while the restrained man pleaded at least twenty times to the officer that he could not breathe.
Floyd was pronounced dead one hour later.
The killing of George Floyd was captured on cell phone video and witnessed by several bystanders who also pleaded with and demanded that Chauvin remove his knee from Floyd’s neck.
Chauvin was charged with second-degree unintentional felony murder, third-degree “depraved mind” murder, and second-degree manslaughter to kill George Floyd. He was convicted on all three counts in April 2021, and on June 26, 2021, he was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison.
Sundiata Acoli Denied Parole After 48 Years in Prison
On May 2, 1973, 36-year-old Sundiata Acoli was a member of the Black Panther Party. He and two associates—members of the Black Liberation Army—were traveling on the New Jersey Turnpike in a vehicle with a broken taillight. They were stopped by two State Troopers, James Harper and Werner Foerstar, riding in separate police cars.
Acoli was escorted to the rear of the vehicle he had been driving where Trooper Harper questioned him. What happened next is subject to multiple accounts, but there was a confrontation between Acoli and the troopers that resulted in a shootout between the officers and the suspects. In the aftermath, Trooper Foerstar was fatally shot twice in the head with his weapon, and one of the vehicle’s occupants was shot dead. Trooper Harper said Acoli shot Trooper Foerstar before taking the officer’s weapon and shooting him twice in the head.
Acoli was tried and convicted in 1974 of the murder of Trooper Foerstar and an assortment of lesser assault charges against Harper. He was sentenced to life imprisonment plus 24 years.
Acoli became eligible for parole in 2010, after serving 36 years in prison, at which time the New Jersey Parole Board summarily denied his release. That parole denial triggered a lengthy legal battle between Acoli and the parole board that was outlined in a comprehensive December 27, 2019 decision by New Jersey’s highest appellate court. The result of this legal battle is that Acoli will not be eligible for parole again until 2032, at which time he will be 94 years old.
Acoli has become a model inmate and a symbol of the racial disparity in the decision-making by the New Jersey Parole Board. He is now incarcerated in a Maryland prison after surviving a bout with Covid-19, although he is a New Jersey prisoner. The parole board’s public rationale for its refusal to release Acoli on parole is that he poses a public threat to commit another crime should he be released from prison.
Police Union Vigorously Opposes Parole
Acoli’s parole release has been vigorously opposed by the Former Troopers Association of New Jersey, a predominantly white group. The group believes Acoli should die in prison.
In an August 24, 2021 article, The Guardian reported:
“A coalition of current and retired Black police officers is calling for the release on parole of Sundiata Acoli, a former Black Panther member who has been incarcerated for 48 years for the 1973 murder of a New Jersey state trooper.
“Four Black law enforcement groups have joined forces to press the case for Acoli’s parole almost half a century after he was arrested. In an amicus brief filed with the New Jersey supreme court, they call his continued imprisonment “an affront to racial justice” and accuse the parole board of violating the law by repeatedly refusing to set the prisoner free.
“‘Mr. Acoli has spent more than half of his life in prison cells the size of a parking space, including nearly 20 years as a senior citizen … He should be granted parole,’
the groups write.”
The Chauvin/Acoli cases present a picture of the systemic racism rooted in the American criminal justice system.
It is indisputable that Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, murdered George Floyd, an unarmed Black American, while Floyd was restrained and posed no threat to anyone. It is also compelling that Sundiata Acoli, a Black American, murdered Werner Foerstar, a white police officer, during a routine traffic stop. The Black American received a life plus 24-year prison sentence while the White cop received a 22.5 year sentence.
Institutional Racism Leads to Gross Systemic Disparties
Chauvin will spend 15 years in prison for his murder. He will be 59 years of age when released.
Acoli has already spent 48 years in prison for his murder. He is now 84 years of age, and will be 94 years of age if he lives to see his next parole hearing in 2032, at which time he will have served 58 years in prison.