36 Years of Solitude

Why is Bobby Jindal’s administration determined to keep Albert Woodfox in permanent lockdown?

What's left of Albert Woodfox's life now lies in the hands of a federal appeals court in New Orleans. By the time the court hears his case on Tuesday,
the 62-year-old will have spent 36 years, 2 months, and 24 days in a
6-by-9-foot cell at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. An
18,000-acre complex that still resembles the slave plantation it once
was, the notorious prison, immortalized in the film Dead Man Walking,
has long been considered one of the most brutal in America, a place
where rape, abuse, and violence have been commonplace. With the
exception of a few brief months last year, Woodfox has served nearly
all of his time there in solitary confinement, out of contact with
other prisoners, and locked in his cell 23 hours a day. By most
estimates, he and his codefendant, Herman Wallace, have spent more time
in solitary than any other inmates in US history.

Woodfox and Wallace are members of a triad known as the "Angola
3"-three prisoners who spent decades in solitary confinement after
being accused of prison murders and convicted on questionable evidence.
Before they were isolated from other inmates, the trio, which included
a prisoner named Robert King, had organized against conditions in what
was considered "the bloodiest prison in America." Their supporters
believe that their activism, along with their ties to the Black Panther
Party, motivated prison officials to scapegoat the inmates.*

Over the years, human rights activists worldwide have rallied around
the Angola 3, pointing to them as victims of a flawed and corrupt
justice system. Though King managed to win his release in 2001, after
his conviction was overturned, Woodfox and Wallace haven't been so
lucky. Amnesty International has called their continued isolation
"cruel, inhuman, and degrading," charging that their treatment has
"breached international treaties which the USA has ratified, including
the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the
Convention against Torture." Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chair of the
House Judiciary Committee, has taken a keen interest in the case and
traveled to Angola last spring to visit with Woodfox and Wallace. "This
is the only place in North America that people have been incarcerated
like this for 36 years," he told Mother Jones.

Meanwhile, the
prevailing powers in Louisiana, from Angola's warden to the state's
attorney general, are bent on keeping Woodfox and Wallace right where
they are. The state's Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, has thus far
steered clear of the controversial case. Conyers, though, who has
spoken with Jindal about Woodfox and Wallace, says the governor seemed

For his part, Conyers is optimistic that Woodfox's fortunes, at
least, could soon change. On Tuesday, Nick Trenticosta, who is one of
Woodfox's lawyers, will have 20 minutes to convince the 5th Circuit
Court of Appeals to uphold the decision of a district court judge in
Baton Rouge, who last July overturned Woodfox's conviction for the 1972
murder of an Angola prison guard. The murder, for which Wallace was
also charged, occurred while Woodfox was already serving a sentence for
armed robbery. Trenticosta, a longtime Louisiana death penalty attorney
who heads the New Orleans-based Center for Equal Justice, will argue
that his client received inadequate representation from his
court-appointed attorneys when he was retried in 1998, as well as
during his original trial in 1973. Better lawyers, he'll argue, would
have shown that Woodfox's conviction was quite literally bought by the
state, which based its case on jailhouse informants who were rewarded
for their testimony. The primary eyewitness to the murder received
special privileges and the promise of a pardon. One of the
corroborating witnesses was legally blind, while another was on the
anti-psychotic drug Thorazine; both were subsequently granted

Woodfox's lawyers will also make the case that the state failed to
provide his previous defense attorneys with crucial information about
the witnesses-ensuring that they were unable to cross-examine them
effectively-and lost physical evidence, which was inconclusive at best,
and possibly favorable to the defendant. (A spokeswoman for the
Louisiana State Penitentiary said the prison, as a matter of policy,
would not comment on an ongoing case.)

Depending on how the appeals court decides, Woodfox may get a chance
at another trial, where this time he'll be represented by a team of
highly skilled lawyers. If given that opportunity, Trenticosta told Mother Jones
in a recent interview, he and his colleagues will go beyond just
refuting the evidence that led to their client's conviction. They
intend to reveal the identities of the real murderers of prison guard
Brent Miller, who, Trenticosta says, are now dead. He says his team has
"numerous witnesses who saw" the murder and others "who have good
information." (Asked for the names of the witnesses and others with
specific knowledge of the murder, Trenticosta said he would reveal
their identities only if there is another trial.) Of Woodfox and
Wallace, Trenticosta says, "They were targeted. They were set up." The
lawyer believes the state of Louisiana is determined to prevent Woodfox
from being retried in order to "cover up a coverup."

The state's case against overturning Woodfox's conviction will be argued by Kyle Duncan, a University of Mississippi law school professor who is an admirer of the jurisprudence of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
He will likely take the usual position in these types of cases, arguing
that Woodfox's previous defense attorneys, despite what Trenticosta
might say, had every opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses, so no
new trial is warranted. But Duncan is little more than a mouthpiece;
the force behind the state's appeal is Louisiana attorney general James
"Buddy" Caldwell Jr. The former prosecutor, who moonlights as an Elvis
impersonator, is a politically ambitious Democrat. Since his election
in 2007, Caldwell has fought efforts by Woodfox and Wallace to overturn
their convictions. After Woodfox's conviction was overturned last year,
Caldwell declared, "We will appeal this decision to the 5th Circuit.
If the ruling is upheld there I will not stop and we will take this
case as high as we have to. I will retry this case myself...I oppose
letting him out with every fiber of my being because this is a very
dangerous man."

Caldwell shares this position with Angola's warden, Burl Cain, a
devout Baptist who has a reputation for proselytizing to the inmates
under his watch. Cain, who has likened the Black Panthers to the KKK,
is adamant that the aging Woodfox is and always will be a menace to
society by virtue of his political beliefs. He has said that Woodfox is
"locked in time with that Black Panther revolutionary actions they were
doing way back when...And from that, there's been no rehabilitation."

After a three-judge appelate panel hears arguments on March 3, it
will be at least six weeks, and possibly many months, before it rules
on the appeal. If it concurs with the district court's decision,
Woodfox will be retried or released. If it overrules the lower court,
his conviction will remain in place, and his defense team will have to
go back to the drawing board.

Albert Woodfox's journey
to the East Courtroom of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals began 40
years ago, when he was convicted of armed robbery at age 21 and
sentenced to 50 years of hard labor. After being transferred from New
Orleans to Angola in 1971, Woodfox met Herman Wallace and Robert King.

In the early 1970s, Angola-which spans an area the size of Manhattan
and is 30 miles from the nearest town-was a lawless, dangerous
hellhole. The all-white corrections officers, who were called
"freemen," lived with their families in their own community on the
prison grounds, with inmate-servants they called "house boys." There
were just 300 freemen to control an inmate population of more than
3,000-but they were backed by hundreds of so-called "trustees,"
supposedly trustworthy convict guards, who were known to abuse other
prisoners. In his just-published autobiography, From the Bottom of the Heap,
Robert King, who was released in 2001 after proving that he'd been
wrongfully convicted of the murder of a fellow Angola inmate, says
prison guards stripped prisoners, shaved their heads, and made them run
a gauntlet of bats and clubs; incoming prisoners, known as "fresh
fishes," were sold as sex slaves. According to records kept by the prison's famous newspaper, The Angolite,
there were 82 stabbings in 1971, 52 in 1972, and 137 in 1973. (The
paper's longtime editor, Wilbert Rideau, won the prestigious George
Polk Award for his journalism while still in prison.)

In his book, King describes the tinderbox atmosphere at Angola when
he arrived in 1971. That August, prisoners had organized a hunger
strike to demand an end to the inmate-guard system, sexual enslavement,
racial segregation, and 16-hour workdays. King sensed a mood of
defiance among the prisoners and learned that Wallace and Woodfox were
"teaching unity amongst the inmates, establishing the only recognized
prison chapter of the Black Panther party in the nation." He joined
Wallace and Woodfox in organizing the prison population to advocate for
better living conditions.

It was in this volatile environment that Brent Miller, a 23-year-old
corrections officer born and raised in Angola's staff community, was
stabbed to death in a prison dormitory on the morning of April 17,
1972. About 200 prisoners-every one of them black-were rounded up and
interrogated. Billy Wayne Sinclair, a white inmate who was on Angola's
death row at the time (he was eventually freed), later told NPR:
"You heard hollering and screaming and the bodies being slammed against
the walls. Upstairs you could smell tear-gas bombs...We heard the
beatings that were going on for weeks after that." Two days after the
murder, an elderly prisoner named Hezekiah Brown came forward,
reportedly telling investigators that he had witnessed the stabbing
being carried out by Woodfox and Wallace, along with two other inmates.
Based on his statements, the local sheriff filed charges against the
men he had named.

Brown was the state's key witness against Woodfox in his 1973 trial.
A magistrate judge who reviewed Woodfox's case wrote last summer that
Brown's testimony was "so critical to [the prosecution's] case that
without it there would probably be no case." After a federal court
overturned Woodfox's conviction, he was given another trial in 1998,
where Brown's account again figured heavily. At that point, Brown had
been dead for two years, but his testimony-without defense
objection-was read into the record. In his 1973 testimony, Brown
admitted that he had at first said he was not in the dormitory when the
murder happened, but then decided to tell "the truth." According to
Brown, the truth was that on the morning of the murder Miller stopped
by his bed for coffee, as he often did, and while he was sitting on
Brown's bed, the four men came into the dorm and began stabbing him.
(NPR, which did a three-part series on the case last year, interviewed
a former Angola inmate who said he was with Woodfox in the prison mess
at the time of the murder.)

According to evidence presented at Woodfox's 1998 trial, Brown was
rewarded for his testimony in numerous ways: He was moved to a
minimum-security area, where he lived in a house, luxurious by prison
standards, and was provided with a carton of cigarettes a week. And a
month after the 1973 trial, then-warden Murray Henderson began writing
letters to state officials seeking a pardon for Brown, which cited his
testimony against Miller's alleged murderers. During Woodfox's 1998
retrial, Henderson acknowledged that he promised Brown a pardon in
exchange for his help "cracking the case." It took years, but Brown, a
serial rapist serving life without parole, was released in 1986.

A second key witness was an inmate named Paul Fobb, who said he saw
Woodfox leaving the dormitory after the murder. Fobb, who was legally
blind, was also dead in 1998, and his earlier testimony, like Brown's,
was read into the record without objection by Woodfox's lawyers. Fobb,
who had been convicted of multiple rapes, was granted a medical
furlough shortly after testifying, and left Angola.

A third prosecution witness, Joseph Richey, claimed that he saw
Woodfox and others exiting the dorm, and on going inside saw Miller's
body. At first he said he thought the inmates were going for help, but
after a meeting at the attorney general's office, Richey changed his
statement. He later confirmed being on Thorazine at the time of his
testimony, and said he had told the attorney general's office as much.
This information was not given to Woodfox's defense lawyers in either
trial, nor were the juries made aware. Richey was subsequently
transferred from Angola to a minimum-security state police barracks,
and went on to work as a butler at the Louisiana governor's mansion. He
was even provided the use of state police cars. While supposedly under
the watch of the state police, Richey robbed three banks.

Yet another supposed witness, Chester Jackson, never testified at
Woodfox's 1973 trial. Yet in 1998, his statements to investigators were
mentioned by prison officials testifying for the prosecution, with only
belated objections by the defense that this was hearsay evidence.

Then there was the physical evidence: a homemade knife that couldn't
be linked to any of the accused; a bloody fingerprint that likewise
matched none of the men Brown had implicated; and flecks of human blood
on Woodfox's shirt (which he denies he was wearing that day). The
bloodstained shirt was lost before the 1998 trial-and before it could
be tested for DNA.

In 1973, Woodfox was convicted of Miller's murder in a matter of
hours by an all-white jury. Wallace was convicted just as quickly in a
separate trial. It took more than two decades of appeals, but Woodfox
finally won a new trial on the basis of "ineffective assistance of
counsel"-poor lawyering. Yet the 1998 trial not only failed to reveal
earlier miscarriages of justice, but also introduced one of its own:
One member of the grand jury that reindicted Woodfox was Anne Butler,
ex-wife of former Angola warden Murray Henderson, who had led the
investigation of the murder in 1973. She was kept on the jury even
after revealing her identity to the district attorney, and despite the
fact that she had written about Miller's murder-and her belief that
Woodfox and Wallace were guilty-in the 1992 book she coauthored with
Henderson, Dying to Tell, which she reportedly passed around for other jurors to read.

Woodfox began working
to secure himself a third trial almost immediately after his second.
But a lifeline came to him via another member of the Angola 3, Robert
King. Convicted of a separate prison murder and placed in solitary for
decades, King ultimately won his release with the help of Chris Aberle,
a former 5th Circuit staff attorney who had been assigned to represent
him in his appeal. King was convinced that, like himself, Woodfox and
Wallace were "victims of frame-up and racism," he said in a recent
interview. He asked Aberle to help them as well, and the lawyer agreed.
In 2006, Aberle filed a habeas corpus petition on Woodfox's behalf with
the Federal District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana.

With Aberle and a team of new lawyers fighting for them, King
speaking out on their behalf, and a growing support movement, it looked
as if 2008 would be a turning point for Woodfox and Wallace. In March,
they were moved for the first time in 35 years
from solitary to a maximum-security dormitory with other prisoners. The
move followed Rep. John Conyers' visit to Angola and was spurred by a
civil lawsuit initiated by the ACLU and carried forward under the
leadership of noted death penalty attorney George Kendall, who argued
that the Angola 3's decades-long confinement in solitary violated the
constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. (The case is

Then, in June 2008, a federal magistrate judge named Christine
Noland issued a 70-page report in response to Woodfox's habeas
petition. The report recommended that Woodfox's 1998 conviction be
overturned, based on the deficiencies in his defense counsel. It also
pointed to the weakness of the state's case:

At the most, the Court sees a case supported largely
by one eyewitness [Brown] of questionable credibility...two corroborating
witnesses, Richey and Fobb, both of whom, according to other evidence
submitted with Woodfox's petition, provided trial testimony which was
materially different from their written statements given just after the
murder, and one of whom's testimony (Fobb's) could have been
discredited by expert evidence; and no physical evidence definitively
linking Woodfox to the crime.

Because, in the Court's view, the State's case did not have
"overwhelming" record support, confidence in the outcome is more
susceptible to and is undermined by defense counsel's errors...and as a
result, Woodfox is entitled to the habeas relief he seeks-that his
conviction and life sentence for the second-degree murder of Miller be
reversed and vacated.

A month later, in July 2008, federal district court Judge James Brady affirmed Noland's findings and issued a ruling overturning Woodfox's conviction.
In November, he ordered Woodfox to be released on bail pending a new
trial. "Mr. Woodfox today is not the Mr. Woodfox of 1973," Brady wrote
in his ruling. "Today he is a frail, sickly, middle-aged man who has
had an exemplary conduct record for over the last 20 years."

Caldwell, Louisiana's attorney general, would have none of it. He
appealed Brady's decision, then moved swiftly to mount an emergency
motion to block Woodfox's release. "We're...not going to let them get
away with that kind of thing," Caldwell told the press. (Caldwell declined to comment for this story.)

release was contingent upon him finding a place to live. His niece, who
lived in a gated community outside New Orleans, offered to take him in.
But an attorney in Caldwell's office emailed the neighborhood
association to warn that a cold-blooded murderer was about to be
released into their midst. Woodfox's niece reported
that her neighbors stopped waving to her family and cars began circling
past her house, sometimes stopping. "We became afraid for our
children," she said. While his lawyers worked to secure other living
arrangements, the court decided to grant the state's emergency motion,
declaring that Woodfox would have to remain in custody pending his

Caldwell has shown a similar determination when it comes to Wallace,
who is pursuing his case through state courts, backed by the same legal
team. In 2006 a state judicial commissioner issued a report similar in
many ways to Christine Noland's, recommending that Wallace's conviction
be overturned based largely on questions about Hezekiah Brown's
testimony. But the recommendation was subsequently dismissed by both
the district court and its appellate court. Wallace has taken his
appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court, where his case is pending.

Caldwell's fixation on
keeping Wallace and Woodfox locked up mystifies some observers of the
case. But in addition to any political motives he may have, Woodfox's
lawyer, Nick Trenticosta, suggests, Caldwell may be seeking to protect
the reputation of one of his closest associates and childhood friends,
John Sinquefield.

As the district attorney who prosecuted the 1973 case against
Woodfox, Sinquefield stands to be tainted by revelations that the
state's key witnesses were compromised-and that he failed to provide
key information to the defense team. Magistrate Judge Noland has
already criticized Sinquefield's behavior in Woodfox's 1998 trial,
where he was called as a witness. After Brown's testimony had been read
into the record, Sinquefield, who's now the chief assistant district
attorney for East Baton Rouge Parish, took the stand to describe the
dead witness' delivery of his original testimony. Brown, said
Sinquefield, had "testified in a good, strong voice, he was very open,
he was very spontaneous, he answered questions quickly, and he was very
fact specific." He also declared, "I was proud of the way he testified.
I thought it took a lot of courage."

In her report, Noland pointed out that Sinquefield's testimony was
highly unorthodox. She noted that "a prosecutor's statements suggesting
that he has personal knowledge of a witness's credibility" meets the
Supreme Court's criteria for "egregious prosecutorial misconduct."

Caldwell, for his part, has made clear that he will go to great
lengths to keep Woodfox and Wallace in prison, and preferably in
solitary confinement (where both men were returned after their brief
respite last year). If need be, he says, he will personally prosecute
Woodfox for a third time for the Miller murder. And if at any point it
looks as if Woodfox will be returned to society-whether on bail or
through exoneration-Caldwell has said he intends to launch a prosecution on what he claims are several 40-year-old charges of rape and robbery for which the prisoner was never prosecuted.

Good luck, says Aberle, who notes that Caldwell is referring to an
arrest record from the '60s. Such charges were then commonly used to
hold black men, he says, but seldom stuck because they had literally
been pulled off a list of existing unsolved rape cases. "Nothing ever
happened with any of them," Aberle says. Caldwell, he adds, "would have
to make a case with witnesses he couldn't come up with 40 years ago."

After Caldwell, the man who appears most determined to keep Woodfox
and Wallace behind bars, is Angola's current warden, Burl Cain. Known
for his prison evangelizing, Cain has set up chapels around the grounds
and a host of Bible study classes and other religious activities for
prisoners. As described in a glowing 2008 article in the Baptist Press:

Once called the bloodiest prison in America, the
Louisiana State Prison at Angola now has a new reputation as a place of
hope for more than 5,000 inmates who live out their life sentences
without parole. Many inmates know they'll leave the prison walls only
when they die, yet despite their circumstances, there is joy in their

Credit for this unprecedented transformation is given to its
one-of-a-kind warden, Burl Cain, who governs the massive prison on the
Mississippi River delta with an iron fist and an even stronger love for

The article notes Cain's special dedication to delivering souls from
the death chamber into the hands of Christ. When he supervised his
first execution as warden, Cain said, "I didn't share Jesus" with the
condemned man, and as he received the lethal injection, "I felt him go
to hell as I held his hand." As Cain tells it, "I decided that night I
would never again put someone to death without telling him about his
soul and about Jesus." Cain believes that there is only one path toward
rehabilitation, and it runs through Christian redemption. According to
Wallace, Cain has at least once offered to release him and Woodfox from
solitary if they renounced their political beliefs and accepted Christ as their savior.

If Cain did indeed make that offer, that's the extent of the mercy he's willing to show the men. "They chose a life of crime," he has said.
"Every choice they made is theirs. They're crybabies crying about it.
What they ought to do is look in the mirror and quit looking out." The
appeals panel that reviewed Woodfox's grant of bail relied heavily on
Cain's statements in deciding to keep the prisoner in custody.
According to the court's stay of release, "The only testimony on
whether Woodfox poses a threat of danger was the deposition of Warden
Cain, who testified about his impressions of Woodfox's character and
Woodfox's disciplinary record while in prison. The Warden stated his
belief that Woodfox has not been rehabilitated and still poses a threat
of violence to others."

In his deposition, Cain provided
numerous examples of Woodfox's rule breaking: Prison guards, he
reported, had discovered five pages of "pornography" in the prisoner's
cell, which, Cain went on to say, "we believe can cause inmates to
become predators on other inmates, because they see-the sexual thing
arouses them. And so they're in an environment where there are no
females, there is no sexual gratification other than whatever you can
create yourself, and then what happens is...it causes homosexuality...and
is counterproductive to moral rehabilitation." On another occasion,
Woodfox was found "hollering and shaking the bars on his cell," a "very
serious" offense, Cain said, because the inmate was "absolutely being
defiant," behavior that could cause other inmates to "rack the bars"
and even "cause a riot." Cain rattled off more charges against the man
he called a "predator," ranging from throwing feces at other prisoners
to threatening a hunger strike. Cain said that Woodfox had made a
"telescopic" pole of compressed paper that could be used as a spear or
a blowgun. Woodfox had also been found with an empty Clorox bottle,
something escaping prisoners used as "flotation devices," according to
Cain, when making their getaways down the nearby Mississippi River. The
majority of these violations-25 of them over 36 years-had occurred more
than 20 years earlier.

Cain has made clear that one of the reasons he thinks Woodfox and
Wallace are dangerous is his belief that the prisoners are moles for
the Black Panthers, who might take the opportunity to start a
revolution in the prison if they are released from solitary. If they're
let out of prison altogether, Cain suggests, they will take their
militant agenda to the streets. In his deposition, he stated that
Robert King is "only waiting, in my opinion, for them to get out so
they can reunite."

"Reunited for what reason?" asked Nick Trenticosta.

"Because he passes out little cookies with the panther on them,"
Cain said, apparently referring to the logo of King's homemade candy
business. (King began making pralines-which he now dubs
"freelines"-while still in Angola, using a makeshift stove fashioned
out of soda cans and fueled by toilet paper.) "If he passed out those
cookies with KKK on them, it would be no different to me. He would be
guilty. If you build your life on hatred and you're hung up back 20 or
30 years ago, and we have moved onto society past that, you can't go
back reliving in the public. You're dangerous...You can keep until the
cows come home; I'm never going to tell you he's not violent and
dangerous, in my opinion. I just can't do it."

Asked by Trenticosta to assume, for a moment, that Woodfox was not
guilty of killing Miller, Cain insisted that his treatment of the
prisoner would remain unchanged.

"I would still keep him in
CCR [solitary confinement]," he said. "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 blacks chasing after them [Woodfox and Wallace]...He
has to stay in a cell while he is at Angola."

Asked to define "Black Pantherism," Cain replied, "I have no idea. I
have never been one. I know they hold their fists up, and I know that I
read about them, and they advocated violence...Maybe they are nice good
people, but he is not."

When Trenticosta pressed him on why Woodfox was dangerous, Cain grew
angry. "What can I say? He's bad. He's dangerous. I believe it. He will
hurt you...They better not let him out of prison."

*Among the activists who have taken up the cause of the Angola 3 were
Anita Roddick, the late founder of the Body Shop (who was also a Mother Jones
board member) and her husband, Gordon. The Roddicks' family charity,
the Roddick Foundation, contributed funding for this story.

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