After 43 Years in Solitary, Last 'Angola 3' Inmate Ordered Released
Judge's decision 'marks a momentous step toward justice,' says Amnesty International
Update (4:15 EDT):
The Associated Press reports that Louisiana's attorney general has asked a state appeals court to block the release of Albert Woodfox—despite Judge James Brady's statement that "the only just remedy" in the case is the immediate and unconditional release of Woodfox.
A federal judge on Monday ordered the release of Albert Woodfox, the last remaining prisoner of the "Angola 3," who has spent the past 43 years in solitary confinement and whose case has drawn international attention by human rights organizations.
U.S. District Judge James Brady of Baton Rouge, Louisiana also barred state prosecutors from trying Woodfox for a third time. Woodfox, 68, had his conviction overturned unanimously last November by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, but was charged again at the state level in February.
"Judge Brady's decision to grant Albert Woodfox unconditional release and bar the state of Louisiana from retrying him should serve as the final word in a case that has now spanned 43 years," Jasmine Heiss, senior campaigner with Amnesty International USA, told Common Dreams. "Woodfox has endured intolerable cruelty for four decades in a cell the size of a parking space—all the while, fighting to prove his innocence is a deeply flawed legal process."
Amnesty International and many other human rights organizations and experts have long said that solitary confinement is a form of torture. Woodfox has spent 23 hours of every day in a small cell since being placed in isolation in 1972.
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The court on Monday said it had found at least five factors in Woodfox's favor, including his age and deteriorating health, as well as the lack of available witnesses. Woodfox, who is currently being held at David Wade Correctional Center in northern Louisiana, has testified that prison guards forced him to undergo daily strip and cavity searches.
Judge Brady also said the court had a "lack of confidence in the state to provide a fair third trial, the prejudice done onto Mr. Woodfox by spending over 40 years in solitary confinement, and finally the very fact that Mr. Woodfox has already been tried twice and would otherwise face his third trial for a crime that occurred over 40 years ago."
Tory Pegram of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3, who is working with Woodfox's lawyers on his release, told the Associated Press that the organization is "thrilled that justice has come for our innocent friend."
"Woodfox has spent 43 years trapped in a legal process riddled with flaws. The only humane action that the Louisiana authorities can take now is to ensure his immediate release."
—Jasmine Heiss, Amnesty International
State prosecutors are seeking different avenues for keeping Woodfox in prison, including requesting an emergency stay of Judge Brady's ruling from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
But Woodfox's champions are calling on the state to give him his freedom, at long last. "It is long past time for Albert to walk free so that he can begin to heal," Heiss said.
Woodfox was placed in solitary confinement in 1972 in Louisiana State Penitentiary, then known as Angola, after a prison riot that same year resulted in the death of a guard. Apart from a three-year period in general population, Woodfox has been held in isolation ever since—the longest sentence in solitary confinement ever served by a U.S. inmate.
He and two other prisoners also placed in isolation over the crime, Herman Wallace and Robert King, eventually became known as the Angola 3.
The state's case against the men has long been scrutinized for its inconsistencies, lost evidence, and the special favors paid between prison officials and inmates, as well as investigators and jury members. Woodfox has continuously denied his involvement in the death of Officer Brent Miller, maintaining that he and the other men were targeted because of their activism in the Black Panther party, which they said angered the Angola guards, and for their demonstrations demanding better conditions at the notorious facility.
Woodfox and Wallace were tried and convicted by an all-white jury within two hours. King was never charged, but placed in solitary confinement for 29 years until his release in 2001.
Wallace was freed on October 1, 2013, at age 71. He died the next day.
Woodfox's conviction has been overturned three times in the past. Federal courts ruled that the trial had violated his constitutional rights through racial discrimination, prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate defense, and suppression of evidence favorable to the defendant (pdf).
But the state appealed each ruling, keeping him in prison—and solitary—for 43 years.
In a press release Monday, Heiss also stated, "After four decades in solitary confinement, Judge Brady's decision to grant Albert Woodfox’s unconditional release marks a momentous step toward justice. Woodfox has spent 43 years trapped in a legal process riddled with flaws. The only humane action that the Louisiana authorities can take now is to ensure his immediate release."