There’s a legal tug-of-war going on between a federal judge and Louisiana. On Monday U.S. District Judge James Brady ordered the immediate release of Albert Woodfox from a Louisiana prison, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. But the state is appealing Brady’s ruling. The 68-year-old Black Panther has been in solitary confinement at the infamous Louisiana State Pentitentiary in Angola or at other Louisiana state prisons for 43 years, making him the longest-serving prisoner currently in isolation—many believe in U.S. history. Woodfox is also the remaining incarcerated member of the “Angola Three,” a trio of black prisoners who were held for decades in isolation.
Louisiana wants to prosecute Woodfox a third time for the 1972 murder of a white prison guard. In response to Brady’s ruling, Louisiana’s Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell filed a notice of appeal on Tuesday with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which decided to block Woodfox’s release temporarily, as the Times-Picayune reports.
According to state prosecutors, in 1972 four inmates at the Angola prison walked into a dormitory and stabbed prison guard Brent Miller 38 times. An NPR report says that prison officials rounded up more than 200 black inmates for brutal interrogations, targeting so-called black radicals.
Hezekiah Brown, an inmate who was known as a jailhouse snitch, claimed that he witnessed Woodfox, Herman Wallace (also a member of the Angola Three), Chester Jackson and Gilbert Montegut kill Miller. Jackson took a deal for a lesser charge, and Montegut was found guilty of a minor offense.
Woodfox and Wallace denied killing Miller. But an all-white jury convicted them. Woodfox and Wallace were placed in isolation, where they appealed their convictions.
There were a number of flaws in the case, according to NPR. There’s evidence that prison officials promised Brown a pardon for his life sentence. Of the four other inmates who came forward claiming that they witnessed the murder, one of them was legally blind; another one, it turns out, was heavily medicated at the time of the murder; and two others recanted later.
The Angola Three became the focus of an international outcry over the inhumanity of solitary confinement. Woodfox, Wallace and Robert King, the third member of the trio, organized an official Black Panther Party chapter inside the prison. Tory Pegram, manager of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3, told the Times-Picayune that the three men led hunger strikes and demonstrated against inhumane conditions at Angola, which included racial discrimination and “systematic prison rape.”
King was convicted of murdering a fellow inmate in 1973 and served 29 years in solitary confinement alongside Woodfox and Wallace. He was freed after his sentence was overturned in 2001. Wallace was released from prison in 2013 after his conviction was overturned. He died days later of untreated liver cancer.
Louisiana convicted Woodfox twice for Miller’s murder, but the courts threw out those convictions. The state indicted him a third time in February; however, Brady cited doubts that Woodfox would get a fair trial.
The appeals court has halted Woodfox’s release, at least until the end of this week, while it reviews the case.