Release Delayed for Last of Louisiana’s ‘Angola 3’

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A federal appeals court Tuesday temporarily blocked the release of a Louisiana inmate who has been in solitary confinement for more than 40 years in order to given the state time to appeal a lower court ruling.
     As a result of the Fifth Circuit ruling, which came after a closed session, Albert Woodfox will remain locked up at the West Feliciana jail at least until Friday.
     Woodfox, who is now 68, was charged with murdering prison guard Brent Miller in 1972, and was convicted twice, in 1973 and again in 1988, but both convictions were later overturned.
     As an inmate at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Woodfox, who was originally serving a 50 year sentence for armed robbery, along with Herman Wallace and Robert King, organized a chapter of the Black Panthers and had begun organizing other black inmates against brutal conditions inside the prison. The three men soon became known as the “Angola Three.” After being accused of murder alongside Wallace in 1972, Woodfox was placed in solitary confinement. King was accused of a separate murder and was also put into solitary.
     King was released in 2001 after spending 29 years in solitary confinement. Wallace was released in 2013 at the age of 71 and died days later of complications related to liver cancer.
     Noting that Woodfox’s “case is riddled with a complex history of fact and procedure” and that Woodfox is in poor health, U.S. District Judge James Brady ruled Monday to set Woodfox free.
     Brady also cited a lack of confidence in the state’s ability to fairly try Woodfox in his decision to let him go.
     “It is uncontested that Mr. Woodfox is now 68-year-old and in poor health,” Judge Brady said in his ruling. “At least as far back as 2008, this Court recognized that Mr. Woodfox was ‘a frail, sickly, middle aged man who has had an exemplary conduct record for over the last 20 years.”‘
     Among other reasons for letting Woodfox go, Judge Brady wrote that three indictments against Woodfox written in the span of 40 years were poor, at least 13 witnesses to the crime are already dead, and the “most essential witness” to the murder, Hezekiah Brown, testified just once before his death.
     The other reasons for letting Woodfox go included the prejudice done to Woodfox for having spent 40 years in solitary confinement and that the state already has had two tries at convicting him which failed.
     The first time Brown was questioned following the murder he said he an alibi placed him on the other side of the prison; the judge noted evidence of possible inducements and threats to Brown for his testimony against Woodfox in 1973, including pardons of several rape convictions following his testimony and transfer to a minimum security prison where he was set up in a private room with a television.
     “Despite the constitutional errors being found at relatively early stages, Mr. Woodfox saw approximately 40 years between being unconstitutionally indicted and then receiving relief for such unconstitutional indictments, Judge Brady said.
     Woodfox was first indicted in 1972. In 1992 that indictment was found to be unconstitutional. The second indictment was given shortly after and its unconstitutionality was confirmed this year.
     A third indictment was handed down in January 2015.
     “Given the nature of our criminal justice system, Mr. Woodfox, at age 68, is facing perhaps another 20 years before a court determines if he was given a fair third trial,” Brady said.
     Aaron Sadler, communications director for the Louisiana Department of Justice, said in a statement to the New Orleans Advocate that Woodfox should be kept in prison “for the sake of the families of his victims and the multiple juries and grand juries that independently determined that this inmate should be held accountable for his multiple crimes.”
     But Brady’s Monday ruling was praised by George Kendall, one of Woodfox’s attorneys, who said Woodfox should be freed.
     “It undermines faith in the rule of law and in justice to see the state continue to pursue Mr. Woodfox’s incarceration under the harshest possible circumstances, especially after the state has been unable to secure a constitutionally sound conviction after two different chances,” Kendall and co-counsel Carine Williams said in a statement to the Advocate. “Mr. Woodfox is an elderly man in failing health who has been a model prisoner. We believe the Fifth Circuit will find that the district court’s ruling was sound, well-reasoned, and based on well-established law.”
     The state’s Tuesday appeal in the Fifth Circuit was filed under seal so that prosecutors could not use documents in the district court proceedings. The attorney general’s motion said the documents were sealed at Woodfox’s request and include information about criminal history, disciplinary records and financial statements.

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