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.
Woodfox's 1972 conviction for the murder of 23-year-old prison guard Brent Miller was corruptly obtained, Angola Three supporters said. Among other misconduct, prosecutors withheld evidence that would have cleared the Angola Three and bribed its key witness, another Angola prisoner—now dead—with the promise of a weekly pack of cigarettes and better living quarters, Angola Three supporters told The Root during interviews for articles on the case published in January. The Angola Three landed in prison on assorted robbery charges that they do not deny committing; they did not know each other before being sentenced to Angola.
Amnesty International has said the solitary confinements of Woodfox and Wallace, whose case is being adjudicated separately, are the longest of which the human-rights group is aware.
Apart from challenging the murder convictions of Woodfox and Wallace, the Angola Three's case highlights what prison reformers describe as the lack of standards in the United States for restricting how long and for what reasons the incarcerated can be placed in solitary confinement.
Woodfox was scheduled to meet yesterday with two New York City-based attorneys who are part of his legal team. But he has canceled visits with other supporters, said attorney Angela Allen-Bell, a professor at Southern University Law Center, because stricter visitation rules imposed roughly two months ago make it hard to receive visitors.
"He has to wear leg irons. His hands are shackled and cuffed. One of my visits with him might last four hours, and with others coming in simultaneously during the day, he may be sitting in that posture for seven or eight hours. It's more than he can physically bear," said Allen-Bell, a member of Free the Angola 3, a coalition of lawyers, human rights groups, grassroots activists and benefactors who have paid the men's legal fees.
Allen-Bell continued: "Caldwell's appeal is predictable … and the state of Louisiana has a long history of prosecutorial misconduct. We are committed to making that unacceptable and to making sure this case represents change in Louisiana, and that it teaches America that corrupt prosecutors have to be held accountable."
Freelancer Katti Gray specializes in covering criminal justice, health care and higher education. She is a contributing editor for the Crime Report at the Center on Media, Crime and Justice in New York City.