Moral Low Ground

US Government

Judge Orders Release of ‘Angola 3’ Prisoner Albert Woodfox after 43 Years in Solitary Confinement


A federal judge has ordered the release of a man held in solitary confinement in a notorious Louisiana prison for more than 43 years, but an appeals court has temporarily blocked his freedom.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports US District Judge James Brady issued a ruling Monday ordering the unconditional release of 68-year-old Albert Woodfox, the last imprisoned member of the ‘Angola 3.’

In 1971, Woodfox, who was earlier convicted for armed robbery, was serving a sentence at the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a former slave plantation then known as America’s toughest prison. That year, he and fellow inmates Herman Wallace and Robert King formed a chapter of the Black Panthers to combat the rampant rape, sexual slavery, violence and horrific living conditions endemic in the prison. They organized numerous strikes and sit-downs, earning the respect of many of the prison’s black inmates and raising the ire of racist prison officials.

On April 17, 1972, Angola guard Brent Miller was stabbed to death at the prison. Woodfox, Wallace and King—the ‘Angola 3’—were immediately charged with the killing and locked up in solitary confinement. Despite a lack of physical evidence linking the trio to Miller’s murder, and despite the fact that the main ‘eyewitness’ against the trio was bribed by prison officials, the ‘Angola 3’ languished in solitary confinement for decades. Woodfox has always maintained his innocence, claiming he has been wrongfully punished for Miller’s murder because of his political activism.

The other ‘Angola 3’ members have both been released from prison. King was freed in 2001 after 29 years in solitary confinement after his conviction was overturned. Wallace was released in October 2013 after more than 41 years in solitary after a federal court ruled he had not received a fair trial. He died three days after his release.

Woodfox was tried and convicted twice for Miller’s murder, but courts later overturned both convictions. 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 Brady ruled in 2008 that Woodfox had not received due process at the 1998 replacement for his deeply flawed 1973 trial, citing ineffective legal counsel and questionable evidence in the case. Woodfox’s attorney had also successfully argued that he could have shown that his client’s conviction was literally bought by the state, whose case was based on the 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, known as one of the nation’s most conservative, which ruled 2-1 in 2010 that Judge Brady had erroneously overturned Woodfox’s conviction.

This time, Brady’s ruling bars Louisiana from forcing Woodfox to stand trial for a third time in connection with Miller’s murder, citing “exceptional circumstances,” including age and poor health and the court’s “lack of confidence in the state to provide a fair third trial.”

But Woodfox’s release was delayed on Tuesday after the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily blocked Brady’s order so the state has time to appeal. Louisiana prosecutors are working hard to keep Woodfox behind bars; Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for the state attorney general’s office, lamented that “the court would see fit to set free a twice-convicted murderer.”

“This order arbitrarily sets aside jury decisions and gives a free pass to a murderer based on faulty procedural issues,” Sadler told reporters.

The case of the ‘Angola 3’ focused attention on the issue of keeping prisoners locked up in solitary confinement, which is widely recognized as a form of psychological torture that can be every bit as agonizing as physical abuse. Contact with other people is a basic human need. Without it, the mind breaks down.

“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 brutally 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.

Woodfox, who is the longest-serving US prisoner in solitary confinement, was reportedly “guardedly optimistic” about his impending release, according to Carine Williams, one of his attorneys. Williams told the Times-Picayune her client is “very seasoned, unfortunately, about (Louisiana’s) courts” and knew the state would do everything it could to prevent his release.

US Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) accused state Attorney General Caldwell of having a “personal vendetta” against Woodfox and called on him to respect Brady’s ruling.

“Attorney General Caldwell must respect the ruling of Judge Brady and grant Mr. Woodfox his release immediately,” Richmond said in a statement. “This is an obviously personal vendetta and has been a waste of tax payer dollars for decades. The state is making major cuts in education and healthcare but he has spent millions of dollars on this frivolous endeavor and the price tag is increasing by the day.”

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