Stay Barring Release of Louisiana Man Extended

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A federal appeals court extended the state’s stay on the release of a Louisiana inmate who has been in solitary confinement for more than 40 years.
     Albert Woodfox, 68, has spent more than 42 years in solitary confinement on charges he murdered prison guard Brent Miller during a prison riot in 1972. Woodfox was convicted of the murder twice, once in 1973 and again in 1988, but both convictions were later overturned.
     “There is a substantial interest in staying the release of a person, twice convicted of murder, from being released from a life sentence without the possibility of parole,” the Fifth Circuit wrote in a ruling Friday which bars Woodfox’s release pending another hearing.
     Earlier last week a lower court federal judge had ordered Woodfox’s immediate release, based on “Mr. Woodfox’s age and poor health, his limited ability to present a defense at a third trial in light of the unavailability of witnesses, this Court’s lack of confidence in the State to provide a fair third trial, the prejudice done to Mr. Woodfox by spending over forty-years in solitary confinement, and finally the very fact that Mr. Woodfox has already been tried twice and would otherwise face his third trial for a crime that occurred over forty years ago.”
     State Attorney General Buddy Caldwell immediately appealed in the Fifth Circuit, which granted an initial stay until Friday afternoon. Now Woodfox will have to wait at least until the court hears arguments from each side.
     In finding in favor of the state’s stay barring Woodfox’s immediate release, the Fifth Circuit found the lower court “gave ‘little weight’ to ‘[t]he fact that Mr. Woodfox has not served the maximum possible sentence [of life imprisonment] and the fact that the underlying constitutional violation could be corrected upon retrial’; it opined that the ‘evidence of guilt is [not] overwhelming.'”
     The Fifth Circuit found that in ruling for Woodfox’s release, the district court had “relied heavily” on a 40-year-old Second Circuit decision as evidence that the severity of the conditions of confinement may in themselves be enough to let a prisoner go.
     But the Fifth Circuit ruled the circumstances of the case the district court relied upon do not apply in Woodfox’s situation because Woodfox is serving a life term without the possibility of parole.
     Woodfox has served more time in solitary confinement than any other prisoner in the U.S.
     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 last week 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.
     But the Fifth Circuit found in its ruling that the state has not shown any lack of competence in fairly convicting Woodfox.
     “To the extent that the district court’s order was based on concern for the lack of available evidence at retrial or doubts about the state’s ability to provide a fair trial … No showing has been made that any state retrial (or any appeal) will be improperly handled,” the appeals court said.
     “We will continue to challenge the right of the state to hold Mr. Woodfox, an elderly man in failing health, in the harshest possible solitary confinement conditions,” attorneys George Kendall and Carine Williams said in a statement.
     Woodfox suffers from heart disease, renal failure and hepatitis C, his attorneys said.

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