December 2, 2008
Albert Woodfox, a former member of the Black Panther Party for
Self-Defense who has spent 37 years in prison at Louisiana State
Penitentiary at Angola, must be released on bail, United States
District Judge James Brady ruled Tuesday, Nov. 25. On September 25,
Judge Brady overturned Woodfox's conviction for the 1972 murder of
prison guard Brent Miller. Though the State has announced its
intention to appeal that decision, until such an appeal is
successful, according to Tuesday's ruling, there is no conviction on
which to hold Woodfox.
In his decision, Judge Brady wrote: "[Woodfox] is a frail, sickly,
middle-aged man who has had an exemplary conduct record for over the
last 20 years. At the hearing before this Court on October 14, 2008,
testimony was adduced that if released Mr. Woodfox would live with
his niece and her family in a gated subdivision in Slidell,
Louisiana. Mr. Woodfox has withdrawn that request because of fear of
harm to his niece and her family... This change was brought about by
counsel representing the State of Louisiana contacting the
subdivision home owners association and providing them with
information regarding Mr. Woodfox. The Court is not totally privy to
what information was given to the association but from the documents
filed it is apparent that the association was not told Mr. Woodfox is
frail, sickly, and has had a clean conduct record for more than
twenty years...this Court grants Mr. Woodfox's motion for release
pending the State's appeal."
Brady's bail ruling is contingent on Woodfox finding a place to live
that the judge approves. Trenticosta said he would submit those
plans, adding, "With any luck, he'll be a free man next week."
Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said he plans to appeal the
bail ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal, threatening to
block a release of Woodfox anytime soon.
Despite Judge Brady's description of Woodfox as "sickly" and "frail,"
Caldwell said Woodfox is a dangerous man with prior rape arrests that
never went to trial once he received a life sentence for an armed
Herman Wallace, who was also convicted in the murder, remains in
prison at Angola. He has an appeal pending with the Supreme Court of
Louisiana, which is similar in content to Woodfox's successful
appeal. The two men were wrongly convicted based largely on the
testimony of a fellow prisoner, Hezekiah Brown, a serial rapist who
was promised and received a pardon in exchange for his testimony
against them. Brown was the sole professed eyewitness to the murder,
and none of the physical evidence put Herman or Albert at the crime scene.
Woodfox's legal team is now working with the court to reach an
agreement on a suitable release location and plan for Woodfox; once
they agree to a plan, Woodfox will be able to leave Angola. The
lawyers anticipate the process to take several more days.
Woodfox and Wallace were each held in solitary confinement from the
time of the murder until last March, after a federal court concluded
that their suit alleging that such confinement for three decades
constitutes cruel and unusual punishment could go forward. A third
man, Robert King Wilkerson, was held in solitary at Angola at the
same time for a different crime; he was released in 2001 after
showing that he had been wrongfully convicted. The three are known as
the "Angola 3." All Black men, they had been organizing nonviolently
for an end to gang-enforced sex slavery and for better conditions
inside the prison. Angola at the time was known as the "bloodiest
prison in the U.S."
"This is a major victory in a case where justice is long overdue.
Albert went into Angola in his twenties, and he's walking out in his
60s. There is no conviction against him now, and the state should not
take another day of his life," said Chris Aberle, Woodfox's lawyer.
"In 37 years, Albert never gave up hope that someday he would walk
out the gates of Angola. We continue to hope that Herman will join
him soon. Neither of these men should have spent a day in Angola for
this crime," said Nick Trenticosta, also a lawyer in the case.
The case has attracted attention on the state and national level.
Last spring, U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers (D-MI)
visited the men, along with Louisiana House Judiciary Committee Chair
Cedric Richmond (D-101). Richmond has announced his intention to hold
hearings on the case, and Conyers continues to monitor developments.
The state had sought a stay of Judge Brady's ruling, ordering a new
trial until the appeal process plays out. Judge Brady granted that
request. The State must now either win its appeals, or will need to
either release or retry Woodfox within 120 days of the end of its appeals.
Judge Brady held an initial bail hearing on October 14; he postponed
issuing a decision at that time to allow for additional depositions
to be taken from Angola Warden Burl Cain and from a doctor who had
examined Woodfox and his medical records. The State has now conducted
both of those depositions.