Tuesday, June 17, 2008
By: Richard Becker
Judge recommends overturn of Woodfox conviction
In a major victory for the long-imprisoned Angola 3, Federal
Magistrate Judge Christine Nolan recommended on June 10 that Albert
Woodfox's conviction be overturned.
Woodfox, along with Herman Wallace, has been imprisoned for more than
36 yearsnearly the entire time in solitary confinementinside the
infamous Louisiana State Prison at Angola. The third member of the
Angola 3, Robert King Wilkerson, was released in 2001 after serving 29 years.
Judge Nolan called for overturning Woodfox's conviction due to
incompetent counsel by his ex-lawyer. In his 1998 retrial, Woodfox
was again convicted in a proceeding widely viewed as a travesty of
justice. His attorney failed to object to the admission of testimony
by witnesses who had died since his original 1972 trial for the
killing of prison guard Brent Miller. Woodfox's lawyer also allowed
the prosecutor to testify about the chief prosecution witness's
credibility in the retrial.
Nolan's recommendation must be accepted or rejected by U.S. District
Judge James Brady. In most cases, federal judges ratify the
recommendations of magistrates. However, given the highly political
character of the case, Angola 3 supporters are hopeful but know that
there is no such assurance. Last year, a state commissioner's
recommendation that Herman Wallace's conviction be overturned was
rejected by a state judge. That decision is under appeal.
Angola 3 Defense Committee spokesperson Marina Drummer said of the
June 10 recommendation: "The recent magistrate's ruling in Albert's
case is a landmark decision that we believe will lead to his freedom.
And surely, Herman will not be far behind. That would mean that one
sad chapter in Louisiana's miserable, racist injustice system would
finally come to an end for these two men and their families. But
there are thousands of other unjustly convicted men and women who
continue to languish in the prisons of Louisiana and across the country."
Political activists caught in racist frame-up
In 1971, Woodfox and Wallace helped found a chapter of the Black
Panther Party inside Angola, the most notorious prison in the United
States. A wave of rebellion was engulfing the U.S. prison system at
the timefrom Attica in New York to San Quentin in California.
Angola penitentiary is a complex of buildings amid huge sugarcane,
cotton and soybean fields run on the slave labor of prisoners. Nearly
all the prisoners were and are African American.
Angola became the site of the first official prison chapter of the
Black Panther Party. The Black Panthers grew rapidly in strength, and
attempted to put an end to the extreme corruption and brutality of
the "trustee system." Under this system, selected prisoners were made
"trustees," given favors and guns, and empowered to rule over and
exploit the majority of inmates. Rape of young prisoners was rampant.
In the dormitories where the Black Panther Party was strong, these
practices were stopped. This was viewed as a threat by the authorities.
The all-white prison administration, headed by the notorious Warden
Murray Henderson, responded to an upsurge of prisoner activism with
extreme repression. In the years that followed, many bodies of
murdered prisoners were exhumed from the surrounding swamps.
In April 1972, guard Miller was stabbed to death. Only one person,
inmate Hezekiah Brown, witnessed the killing. At first Brown said he
could not identify anyone involved because their faces had been covered.
After several days of pressure, however, Brown changed his story and
identified four men: Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace, Gilbert Montegut
and Chester Jackson. They became known as the Angola 4.
Montegut, a revolutionary activist like Woodfox and Wallace, was
later acquitted. Jackson struck a deal and testified for the
prosecution. Years later, evidence emerged that both Hezekiah Brown
and Chester Jackson were paid off with sentence reductions and
Putting the Black Panther Party on trial
After winning a new trial, Woodfox was indicted anew in 1993. One of
the grand jurors was Anne Butler, an author and the wife of Warden
Henderson. Butler had written a book, "Dying to Tell," about Angola
prison. The first chapter was on the death of guard Miller, based on
the state's version that Woodfox and Wallace were guilty.
Instead of calling witnesses, the assistant district attorney in
charge of presenting the case to the grand jury requested that Butler
"explain" the case. The new indictment was then handed up. Judge
Bruce Bennett turned down a motion by Woodfox's lawyers to throw the
case out based on outrageous grand juror prejudice.
Woodfox's 1998 trial was before a classic kangaroo court. As Dr. Gail
Shaw, a long-time supporter of the Angola 3, said at the time, "the
state's case was really based on putting the Black Panther Party on trial."
The prosecution introduced statements from Hezekiah Brown and former
warden Henderson, which were allowed into testimony unchallenged by
the defense attorneys. In an intimidating show of force on the final
day of the trial, prison guards, state police and local sheriffsall
in full-dress uniformspacked the courtroom, emphasizing to the
small-town jury of Amite their expectation of a guilty verdict. Their
expectations, predictably, were met.
Outside the Amite courthouse in 1998, Geronimo ji Jaga, who himself
had just been released the previous year after spending 27 years in
behind bars in California on frame-up charges, testified about the
courage of Woodfox and Wallace: "They endured and survived over all
these years with very little help from the outside. They are the kind
of unsung heroes who we must come forward to help because they never
asked for anything from us in exchange for what they have suffered."
Ten years later, the Angola 3 are still victims of indescribable
justice. What has changed over the past decade is that their case has
become internationally known, thanks to a tremendous campaign waged
by the Angola 3 Defense Committee and supporters in the United States
and around the world.
Now, the challenge is to win the final victory and set Woodfox and
The author attended the 1998 retrial of Albert Woodfox in Amite,
Louisiana. For more information about the struggle of the Angola 3,
go to www.angola3.org.