Freedom After 40 Years in Solitary?

Supporters of one of the Angola Three tell The Root why he might be released this time.

Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace and Robert Hillary King (

Editor's note: This is the first of two parts.

After four decades of solitary confinement in the nation's most populated maximum-security prison—and one of its most historically brutal—a member of the internationally known "Angola Three" has reasonable cause to expect that he will soon be released, his attorneys and supporters say. The request to set free Albert Woodfox, 65, is being heard by the same federal judge who in 2008 ordered that Woodfox be released, a ruling that Louisiana prosecutors successfully appealed and blocked.

Woodfox and Herman Wallace, now 71, were placed in solitary confinement in 1972—theirs is the longest-running solo detention of which human rights group Amnesty International is aware—after being convicted of killing a white guard at Angola prison, the slave plantation-turned-Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Both men have consistently said that they were falsely accused and that their conviction was the means by which prison officials punished the Angola Three for their membership in the Black Panther Party. Also a member of that trio is Robert Hillary King, now 69, who was released in 2001 after plea-bargaining to a crime unrelated to the murder, a crime for which he was never officially charged, although prison officials insisted that he was involved.

As prison activists, the Angola Three had challenged ongoing, unpunished rape of inmates—including a system of "sexual slavery" that prison officials eventually acknowledged—racial segregation and other adverse prison conditions. The three, who did not know one another before landing at the 18,000-acre prison farm—named for the town where it is located, roughly an hour's drive from Baton Rouge—initially were convicted in the 1960s of assorted robbery charges that they do not contest.

Concerning Woodfox, his lawyers say that this time around, they believe they have unequivocally affirmed several points favoring their client:

* An all-white, all-male jury—seated in a jurisdiction where almost half the residents are black—was wholly disinclined to consider that the Angola Three, who are black men, were innocent of killing a white prison guard, 23-year-old Brent Miller.

* State prosecutors bribed the sole, alleged witness to the killing with a weekly pack of cigarettes and better living quarters in exchange for reversing his initial claim that none of the three was at the crime scene. Prosecutors and prison officials withheld details of that bribe and other essential information during the trial; have since contended that they lost evidence, including scrapings from the dead guard's fingernails; and refused to release inmate fingerprints to compare with fingerprints left near Miller's corpse that the Angola Three's lawyers obtained.

* Subsequent court proceedings, including Woodfox's 1993 retrial, were tainted by a pattern of excluding blacks from juries and of judges exclusively choosing whites as foremen of grand juries that decide whom to indict for trial. For that 1993 retrial, a white grand jury foreman with a high school diploma was chosen over a black candidate who had a college degree.

Racism's Pervasive Influence

"We had a jury of angry white men in 1972," Nicholas Trenticosta, a lawyer from New Orleans who mostly handles death-penalty cases and is representing Woodfox, told The Root. " ... Pure, flat-out racism is driving this train."

To amplify what the Angola Three's supporters say was the prevailing racial climate at the prison, they point to a 2008 court hearing during which Trenticosta questioned Burl Cain, installed in 1995 as Angola's warden and widely viewed as a prison reformer who has overseen a decline in violence at Angola.

Trenticosta: OK. What is it about Albert Woodfox that gives you such concern?

Cain: The thing about him is that he wants to demonstrate. He wants to organize. He wants to be defiant.

Trenticosta: Well, let me ask you this. Let's just, for the sake of argument, assume, if you can, that he is not guilty of the murder of [Officer] Brent Miller.

Cain: OK. I would still keep him in [solitary]. I still know he has a propensity for violence. I still know that he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organize the young new inmates. I would have me all kind of problems, more than I could stand. And I would have the [whites] chasing after them. I would have chaos and conflict, and I believe that. He has to stay in a cell while he's at Angola.