A Louisiana man whose more than 40 years of solitary confinement was driven, his supporters say, by the racial bias of state prison officials and prosecutors has won a court order that ostensibly overturns what his international coterie of advocates also contend was a wrongful murder conviction.
New Orleans-based Nicholas Trenticosta, one of Woodfox’s lawyers, told The Root he is not troubled by the prospect of an appeal. “We’re not overly worried about the 5th Circuit Appeals Court,” Trenticosta said. “The facts are clear; the law is clear. The judge applied the correct law to the facts and found there was racial discrimination in [the selection] of the grand jury. We very much anticipate the 5th Circuit will uphold this ruling.”
The state attorney general in 2008 successfully blocked a similar favorable ruling on Woodfox’s prior petition for habeas corpus, which is Latin for “have the body.” Habeas corpus places the burden of proof for a person’s detention on the court and orders that the person in custody be brought before the court. Short of winning the upcoming appeal, Trenticosta added, prosecutors can retry Woodfox for the 1972 murder of a white prison guard at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in the town of Angola, a former slave plantation that is one of the nation’s largest and historically most brutal prisons.
Woodfox and Angola Three member Herman Wallace, 71, who is also still in solitary confinement, have consistently said that they were falsely accused and that their conviction was the means by which prison officials punished them for their membership in the Black Panther Party. As jailhouse lawyers, they had successfully litigated complaints about racial segregation, sanctioned rape and other ills at Angola, as the state penitentiary is commonly known.
Also a member of that trio is Robert Hillary King, 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.
In his Tuesday ruling, U.S. District Court Judge James Brady cited the state’s pattern of racially excluding black grand jury foremen and forewomen in West Feliciana Parish, where Woodfox was tried. From 1980 through 1993, according to the judge’s order, 18.5 percent of foremen and forewomen were black, even though 44 percent of the parish’s residents were black during that period.
Caldwell’s office has argued that state laws excluding convicted felons and residents who cannot read and write from jury duty diminished the size of the eligible pool of black jurors. The office did not, however, provide statistical proof of that, Brady concluded.