A federal judge in Baton Rouge has called for the unconditional release of Albert Woodfox, the only remaining imprisoned member of the Angola 3.
For more than 40 years, Woodfox, 68, has been in solitary confinement at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, and other state prisons, for reasons related to the 1972 murder of prison guard Brent Miller. Woodfox has twice been convicted of Miller's murder, but courts later overturned both the convictions.
U.S. District Judge James Brady issued a ruling Monday (June 8) afternoon calling for the unconditional release of Woodfox from state custody and barring a third trial of the murder charge.
Woodfox has always maintained his innocence, claiming he was implicated in the murder of the 23-year-old guard to silence his activism as an organizing member of the prison's Black Panther Party chapter.
His attorney Carine Williams said Woodfox would spend Monday night at a pretrial detention center in West Feliciana Parish, where he's been since February. He was transferred to the parish facility from a state prison after a grand jury there handed down Woodfox his third indictment in the 43-year-old murder case.
Aaron Sadler, spokesman for Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell's office, said Brady's order "arbitrarily sets aside jury decisions" based on "faulty procedural issues."
"With today's order, the Court would see fit to set free a twice-convicted murderer who is awaiting trial again for the brutal slaying of Corrections Officer Brent Miller," he said in an emailed statement.
In his ruling, Brady denied the state's request for a stay. But Caldwell's office is seeking an emergency stay from the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, Sadler said, "to make sure this murderer stays in prison and remains fully accountable for his actions."
Countering Sadler's remarks, a statement from Woodfox's attorneys said there was "nothing arbitrary about the federal court's ruling, which is carefully considered and relies on firmly established law. ...The federal court further recognizes that the State has now had two chances to secure a valid conviction against Mr. Woodfox and has been unable to do so."
In the 27-page ruling, Brady said it is more customary to issue "conditional" release based on the outcome of a retrial. However, he gave five factors in Woodfox's case that qualify as "exceptional circumstances" to merit barring a third trial.
"The five factors include: 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 onto 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," he wrote.
Woodfox's lawyers and lawyers for the state will meet Tuesday (June 9) with Brady in a closed-chamber setting in Baton Rouge before Brady determines how to proceed, whether it be the logistics of Woodfox's release or a stay of the release during appeals.
Williams said she and Woodfox's other attorney, George Kendall, delivered the news to their client in person, around 7:30 p.m. Monday. By then the ruling had been issued hours earlier. Woodfox was expecting a visit from the New York-based lawyers to discuss his civil case about the conditions of his solitary confinement. He did not expect news about his habeas corpus petition.
"He was neither jaded nor excited," initially, Williams said. "I think he was more shocked."
While Woodfox grew "guardedly optimistic" about his potential release, Williams said, he is "very seasoned, unfortunately, about (Louisiana's) courts." He knew the state would seek any means to keep him incarcerated.
Williams said Woodfox was curious if they had told his family about the ruling. "He mostly wants to talk to his brother."
Among Woodfox's health problems, which Brady referenced in his ruling, is a diagnosis of Hepatitis C. The late Herman Wallace, another member of the Angola 3 implicated with Woodfox in Miller's murder, also had Hepatitis C, Williams said. Wallace was released from prison in October 2013, at age 71, after his conviction was overturned. He died days later of untreated liver cancer. A risk factor of Hepatitis C is an increased risk of developing liver cancer.
Additionally, Woodfox suffers from diabetes, renal failure and a history hyper-tension, Williams said. "He a host of issues that elderly people commonly face, but his are in (the) context of (solitary confinement)."
Woodfox's designation as a member of the Angola 3 stems from what the group's supporters believe are wrongful convictions for prison murders in which Woodfox, Wallace and Robert King were implicated in retaliation for organizing an official Black Panther Party chapter inside the prison, which led hunger strikes and other demonstrations opposing inhumane prison conditions. Those conditions, in the early 1970s, included continued racial segregation, corruption and "systematic prison rape," Tory Pegram, the manager of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3 Pegram, has said.
Amnesty International, a major human rights organization, has called for Woodfox's release and has decried conditions of his solitary confinement, which a November 2014 editorial in The New York Times called "barbaric beyond measure."
The slain prison guard's widow, Teenie Rogers, has said she believes Woodfox and Wallace were not involved in her husband's death and has previously called for their release. In 2008, she told The Los Angeles Times, under the last name from a previous marriage: "If I were on that jury, I don't think I would have convicted them." In 2013, she attended a rally with Angola 3 supporters at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge demanding the state halt its attempts to keep Woodfox incarcerated for her late husband's murder.
Woodfox, of New Orleans, was originally sentenced to prison at Angola on charges of armed robbery. That sentence would have expired decades ago, Pegram said. He was at Angola only a few years before he was implicated, along with Wallace, in Miller's murder.
Woodfox was first convicted of Miller's murder in 1974. That conviction was overturned in 1992 by a state court due to "systematic discrimination."
He was then re-indicted in 1993 by a new grand jury and reconvicted five years later, in 1998.
Robert King, the third member of the Angola 3 who was convicted of killing a fellow inmate, was exonerated and released from prison in 2001, after 29 years in solitary. King remains active in the campaign to release Woodfox from prison and end the practice of solitary confinement.
Brady overturned Woodfox's second conviction in 2008, stating Woodfox's defense counsel was ineffective. The state appealed, and the case made its way to the Fifth Circuit.
Once there, the court reversed Brady's ruling and determined that while his 1998 trial "was not perfect," Woodfox couldn't prove there would have been a different outcome with different counsel.
Woodfox's attorneys then focused in on the discrimination issue, arguing there were also problems with the 1993 indictment because black grand jury forepersons were woefully underrepresented in West Feliciana Parish in the previous 13 years.
Brady agreed Woodfox's 1998 retrial was constitutionally mired by racial discrimination in the selection of the grand jury foreperson. In May 2012, he overturned Woodfox's conviction a second time. The case was kicked up to the Fifth Circuit after the state appealed.
The Fifth Circuit, in a November 2014 ruling, agreed with Brady that the conviction should be overturned.
On Feb. 3, the Fifth Circuit denied the state's request for a review of its decision by a full panel of judges. On Feb. 6, Woodfox's attorneys filed a motion seeking his conditional release. On Feb. 12, the state's attorneys announced a West Feliciana Parish grand jury had indicted Woodfox for a third time in the decades-old Angola prison murder. Woodfox was then transferred from David Wade Correctional Center in Homer to the West Feliciana Parish facility -- Angola's jurisdictional parish.
Brady's ruling on Monday calling for Woodfox's release comes about three months after Woodfox entered a federal court hearing in Baton Rouge with shackles and graying hair, wearing a black-and-white jumpsuit and dated eyeglasses.
"We are optimistic that Louisiana will comply with the federal court's ruling," his attorneys' statement continued. "We look forward to Mr. Woodfox going home to his family; getting much needed medical attention; and living the remainder of his days in peace."
Meanwhile, Woodfox is still being held in solitary confinement at the parish facility in St. Francisville. While he was afforded an hour outdoors every day at the state prison in Homer, hour-long breaks have dropped to three times a week at the St. Francisville facility.
There's a TV in his cell, which is different for Woodfox, Williams said. But instead of prison bars lining a wall, the door to his cell is solid steel.
It remains unclear, she said, how soon Woodfox could possibly be freed if the state fails in its efforts to thwart his release.