The last remaining member of the “Angola 3” – believed to have served the longest term in solitary confinement in the United States – was released from prison after almost 44 years, while consistently maintaining his innocence in the 1972 murder of a guard at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. [See: PLN, Jan. 2009, p.8; April 2004, p.12].
Accompanied by his brother, Albert Woodfox left the West Feliciana Parish Detention Center a free man on February 19, 2016 – his 69th birthday – after entering a no contest plea to lesser charges. Woodfox and another prisoner, the late Herman Wallace, had long argued they were wrongfully convicted in the stabbing death of Angola guard Brent Miller, 23, because they had been actively organizing a Black Panther Party chapter at the prison during the early 70s.
Woodfox was indicted three times for Miller’s murder, most recently in February 2015. He has always claimed he is innocent; one of his attorneys, George Kendall, with the law firm of Squire Patton Boggs LLP, said Woodfox pleaded no contest to manslaughter and aggravated burglary, which was not an admission of guilt.
“It means simply that [Woodfox] does not contest that the State would present evidence at a new trial from witnesses who said he committed this crime,” Kendall stated. “Mr. Woodfox continues, as he always has, to maintain his innocence.”
Under a plea agreement, Woodfox was sentenced to 42 years in prison and released on time served. He also waived his right to appeal, according to his attorney.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who had continued to pursue charges against Woodfox despite prior adverse rulings by federal courts, said in a statement that he believed the plea amounted to a homicide conviction in Miller’s death.
“Considering all of the facts and circumstances surrounding this case and its procedural history, as it stands today – our team of prosecutors believes this plea is in the best interest of justice,” Landry stated. “Today’s plea brings closure to the family of Brent Miller, justice for the people of Louisiana, and finality to this decades-long prosecution.”
In an interview with CNN, West Feliciana Parish District Attorney Samuel D’Aquilla said he was “not really in agreement” with the decision to release Woodfox, but added “it was probably the best thing to do” considering how difficult it would have been to prosecute him a third time.
“A lot of the witnesses [from the first 1973 murder trial] are now dead,” D’Aquilla noted. “I’d like to say for the record, he is a murderer. He was convicted twice by juries and those convictions were overturned both times on technicalities.”
“Although I was looking forward to proving my innocence at a new trial, concerns about my health and my age have caused me to resolve this case now and obtain my release with this no-contest plea to lesser charges,” Woodfox said in a statement, in which he also thanked his brother, who visited him once a month despite living in Texas, and his fellow Angola 3 members, Wallace and Robert King Wilkerson.
“I hope the events of today will bring closure to many,” Woodfox added.
Herman Wallace died from complications of liver cancer just three days following his release from prison in October 2013 after his conviction was vacated by a federal court, which found he had been deprived of a fair trial. Wilkerson was released in 2001 after a court overturned his 1973 conviction for killing another prisoner; also involved in the Black Panther Party at Angola, he had spent 29 years in solitary confinement while Wallace spent 41 years in solitary. [See: PLN, June 2001, p.18].
Kendall said his law firm will now continue pursuing a constitutional challenge to “indefinite solitary confinement” by pressing ahead with a civil lawsuit filed in federal court. Woodfox and Wilkerson are co-plaintiffs in the case. See: Wilkerson v. Stalder, U.S.D.C. (M.D. La.), Case No. 3:00-cv-00304-JJB-RLB.
“Although we are overjoyed that Albert Woodfox is finally free, it is indefensible he was forced to endure decade after decade in harsh solitary confinement conditions, longer than any prisoner in the history of the United States,” Kendall stated. “Albert survived the extreme and cruel punishment of 40 plus years in solitary confinement only because of his extraordinary strength and character. These inhumane practices must stop. We hope the Louisiana Department of Corrections will reform and greatly limit its use of solitary confinement as have an increasing number of jurisdictions around the country.”
“I can now direct all my efforts to ending the barbarous use of solitary confinement and will continue my work on that issue here in the free world,” Woodfox added.
Since the age of 25, Woodfox had been confined alone in cells measuring roughly 6 ft. by 9 ft. for approximately 23 hours each day. Human rights organization Amnesty International celebrated his freedom.
“After four decades of isolation, Albert Woodfox’s release is long overdue and undeniably just,” said Jasmine Heiss, the senior campaigner at Amnesty International USA’s Individuals at Risk Campaign. “Nothing will truly repair the cruel, inhuman and degrading solitary confinement that the state of Louisiana inflicted upon him.”
Woodfox’s conviction for murdering Miller was overturned twice, first by a state court in 1992 on the grounds that his attorney had been ineffective. He was indicted again and convicted in 1998. He then filed a habeas petition in federal district court, which was granted in September 2008 with the court ordering Woodfox’s release pending a retrial. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling in 2010, but remanded to determine whether blacks had been unconstitutionally underrepresented on the original grand jury panel that indicted Woodfox. The district court found that they were and again granted habeas relief; that decision was affirmed by the Fifth Circuit in 2014. See: Woodfox v. Cain, 772 F.3d 358 (5th Cir. 2014).
The state then reindicted Woodfox a third time. The federal district court subsequently granted an unconditional writ of habeas corpus barring a retrial on the murder charges; however, the Court of Appeals reversed on November 9, 2015. In his dissenting opinion, Circuit Judge James L. Dennis stated, “For the vast majority of his life, Woodfox has spent nearly every waking hour in a cramped cell in crushing solitude without a valid conviction....” See: Woodfox v. Cain, 805 F.3d 639 (5th Cir. 2015), petition for cert. filed.
The murdered guard’s widow, Leontine “Teenie” Rogers, had called for Woodfox and Wallace to be released years ago, saying she no longer believed they had killed her husband. She issued a statement as recently as June 2015 expressing doubt as to Woodfox’s guilt.
“I think it’s time the state stop acting like there is any evidence that Albert Woodfox killed Brent,” Rogers said in that statement. “After a lot of years looking at the evidence and soul-searching and praying, I realized I could no longer just believe what I was told to believe by a state that did not take care of Brent when he was working at Angola and did not take care of me when he was killed.”
However, Miller’s brother, Stan Miller, said Rogers did not represent the family and he believed Woodfox was in fact guilty.
“[He] was convicted twice,” Miller told The Times-Picayune in June 2015. “My brother [doesn’t] get to go home and rest in peace. He’s under the ground and resting in peace.”
The lawyer representing Herman Wallace called the October 1, 2013 Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that exonerated his client a great event, though one that was tragically short-lived.
“He has claimed there was an unfair trial for 41 years and finally we have that ruling,” said Wallace’s attorney, Nick Trenticosta. “For him to pass on from this world with friends and family at his side [was] extremely important.”
Wallace and Woodfox were key to establishing the first Black Panther chapter at Angola, which advocated against the culture of violence and rape that was pervasive in the prison at the time. “It was a cauldron of brutality,” said Trenticosta. They “were threatening the status quo.”
When Wallace was ordered released in 2013, Louisiana officials promptly moved to stay that order, but the federal district court denied their motion and threatened to hold contempt proceedings if the state failed to comply.
“Herman endured what very few of us can imagine, and he did it with grace, dignity, and empathy to the end,” his attorneys said on the day after his October 4, 2013 death, at the age of 71. “Although his freedom was much too brief, it meant the world to spend those last three days surrounded by the love of his family and friends. One of the final things Herman said to us was, ‘I am free. I am free.’”
Following his recent release from prison, Woodfox said his immediate plans included visiting the graves of his mother and his sister.
Sources: www.nola.com, www.cnn.com, www.huffingtonpost.com, http://law.justia.com, www.fox8live.com, www.democracynow.org, The Guardian, http://angola3.org, The New York Times
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Woodfox v. Cain
|Cite||805 F.3d 639 (5th Cir. 2015), petition for cert. filed|
Woodfox v. Cain
|Cite||772 F.3d 358 (5th Cir. 2014)|
|Appeals Court Edition||F.3d|
Wilkerson v. Stalder
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (M.D. La.), Case No. 3:00-cv-00304-JJB-RLB|