Moral Low Ground


Dying ‘Angola 3’ Prisoner Herman Wallace, Locked in Solitary for 42 Years, Freed After Conviction Overturned

A dying prisoner who has been locked up in solitary confinement in a Louisiana state penitentiary for nearly 42 years has been released after a federal judge overturned his conviction because he did not receive a fair trial.

Herman Wallace, one of the ‘Angola 3,’ was freed from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel on Tuesday night and rushed directly to LSU Medical Center in New Orleans, where supporters gave him a bittersweet welcome to freedom. Wallace, 71, is terminally ill, suffering from late stage liver cancer. He has just days, weeks at most, to live.

Wallace was locked away in solitary confinement for most of his nearly 42 years behind bars, longer than any other prisoner in the United States.

In 1971, Wallace, Albert Woodfox and Robert King– the Angola 3– formed a chapter of the Black Panthers in Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola Prison, in an attempt to combat the rampant rape, sexual slavery, violence and horrific living conditions endemic to the prison. They organized numerous strikes and sit-downs, and while their valiant efforts brought purpose and hope to many of Angola’s black inmates, they stoked the ire of racist prison officials keen to keep ‘nigger’ convicts in their place.

On April 17, 1972, Angola guard Brent Miller was stabbed to death. The Angola 3 were immediately charged with the killing and locked up in solitary confinement that very same day. Despite a lack of physical evidence linking them to Miller’s murder, and despite the fact that the main eyewitness against the trio was bribed by prison officials, Wallace and Woodfox have remained locked away in maddening solitary confinement ever since. They and their supporters claim they are political prisoners being punished by racist prison officials for their political activism.

King was released in 2001 after 29 years in solitary after his conviction was overturned. Woodfox has had two appeal hearings, one in 2008 and another in 2010, which resulted in his conviction being overturned and the full granting of habeas corpus. Judge James Brady of the Federal District Court, Middle District of Louisiana ruled that Woodfox had not received due process at the 1998 replacement for his deeply flawed 1973 trial. Judge Brady cited ineffective assistance of counsel, questionable evidence and irregular practices in overturning Woodfox’s conviction; Woodfox had successfully argued that he could have shown that his conviction was literally bought by the state, whose case was based on the “witness” testimony of jailhouse snitches who were compensated for their cooperation.

Brady ordered Woodfox’s conviction and life sentence to be “reversed and vacated,” but Louisiana Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell appealed the ruling to the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. That court is known as one of the nation’s most conservative; US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor even went so far as to reprimand it for “paying lip service to principles” of appellate law due to its staunch upholding of death sentences. The Fifth Circuit Court ruled 2-1 that Judge Brady had erroneously overturned Woodfox’s conviction and he remained locked up in solitary.

Wallace and Woodfox spent the better part of the last four decades locked up in isolation for 23 hours a day in windowless 9’x6″ concrete cells with a single concrete bed, concrete table and a single light. Critics claim solitary confinement is one of the worst types of torture imaginable. In times of war, such imprisonment is banned under the Geneva Conventions. Contact with other people is a basic human need. Without it the mind literally breaks down. A 1992 study of 57 Yugoslav prisoners of war found that the most severe brain abnormalities occurred in the men who had experienced physical trauma, like severe blows to the head, or in those who had been subjected to solitary confinement.

“It’s an awful thing, solitary,” said Sen.John McCain (R-AZ), who spent two of his five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam in isolation. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” McCain was no stranger to “other forms of mistreatment,” having been horrifically tortured by his captors.The US military studied scores of former POWs from the Vietnam War and concluded that  solitary confinement was as excruciating as any physical torture the men had endured. Among detainees at the US concentration camp at Guantánamo Bay, extended periods of isolation sometimes led to serious mental illness, even insanity.

It took the state of Louisiana until Herman Wallace was literally on his death bed to release him, and that’s only because a federal judge ordered his immediate release on the well-established grounds that he did not receive a fair trial. Wallace’s legal team released the following statement:

“With today’s ruling, at long last, Herman Wallace has been afforded some measure of justice after a lifetime of injustice. We ask that the Department of Corrections honor Judge Jackson’s order and immediately release Herman Wallace so that he can spend his final days as a free man.”

“In addition, litigation challenging Mr. Wallace’s unconstitutional confinement in solitary confinement for four decades will continue in his name. It is Mr. Wallace’s hope that this litigation will help ensure that others, including his lifelong friend and fellow ‘Angola 3’ member, Albert Woodfox, do not continue to suffer such cruel and unusual confinement even after Mr. Wallace is gone.”

Wallace will spend his remaining days surrounded by friends and family. Albert Woodfox remains behind bars.

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