Albert Woodfox’s release blocked; Louisiana wins right to appeal

Albert Woodfox’s release blocked; Louisiana wins right to appeal
Angola 3 member Albert Woodfox has been held at the West Feliciana Parish Detention Center since his February indictment for the 1972 murder of Angola prison guard Brent Miller. A West Feliciana Pairsh grand jury indicted Woodfox this year for a third time in Miller’s murder after courts overturned two of his previous convictions. The Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals is expected to rule on Woodfox’s potential release on Friday, June 12, 2015.
Emily Lane, | The Times-Picayune
on June 12, 2015 at 12:52 PM, updated June 16, 2015 at 12:53 PM
Albert Woodfox, who has spent more that 40 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana prisons, was cautiously optimistic when a federal judge ordered his release earlier this week, his attorney said. On Friday (June 12), that caution was validated.

The Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals issued a decision Friday to continue to block the release of Woodfox, who is under a third indictment for the 1972 murder of a prison guard, while the court considers an appeal filed by Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell. The ruling meant Woodfox would not be released Friday (June 12), which had been a possibility.

The Fifth Circuit earlier this week granted Caldwell a temporary, emergency stay, blocking Woodfox’s release after U.S. District Judge James Brady ruled Monday (June 8) that not only should Woodfox be freed, but that he should not be tried a third time for the 43-year-old prison murder.

The temporary stay expiring at 1 p.m. Friday was enacted for the purpose of allowing Woodfox’s attorneys to argue for his unconditional release.

Woodfox, 68, has been held in closed-cell restriction, the state says, because of two convictions for the murder of Brent Miller, the 23-year-old slain guard. Woodfox and another inmate, the late Herman Wallace, were both accused in the murder at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Courts overturned both of Woodfox’s convictions, but a West Feliciana Parish grand jury in February indicted him for a third time in the decades-old case.

Despite the problems with the state’s case against Woodfox, if he is forced to stand trial again it would be more than just a setback, his attorney Carine Williams said. It took 20 years to litigate the first conviction. And after the second indictment was secured in 1993, it took more than five years to get to trial. Woodfox’s age and illnesses mean the clock is ticking.

“Albert doesn’t have that kind of time,” she said Friday.

Wallace’s convictions were also eventually overturned, and he was freed from custody in October 2013, days before he died of liver cancer.

About a dozen family members of Miller, who was reportedly stabbed 38 times, stood outside the West Feliciana Detention Center when news came down that the appeal process will continue. Stan Miller, Brent Miller’s then-younger brother, now 62 years old, said he and his family were “feeling great” following the court’s decision not to release Woodfox. “Maybe we can get some closure,” he said.

“Whenever you murder somebody or do something wrong, you pay the price,” Miller’s sister, Wanda Callender, told the Associated Press outside the detention center. “Two juries said he was guilty… I would love for him to stay in prison the rest of his life.”

Miller’s widow Teenie Rogers, who has publicly expressed doubt about Woodfox’s guilt, was not at the facility Friday. She issued issued a statement Thursday (June 11) calling for his release.

“Loving Brent doesn’t mean we have to ignore the truth and the evidence,” the statement says.

Williams, who was with her client at the St. Francisville facility when the ruling was issued, said she and Woodfox were disappointed that his potential release has been stalled, yet again. Accustomed to appeals and retrials of his case stretching across decades, Woodfox knew he might not walk free Friday. However, she said, “of course he was hopeful.”

A joint statement issued by Williams and Woodfox’s other attorney George Kendall said they’re confident the Fifth Circuit “will ultimately find that the district court’s ruling is sound, well-reasoned, and based on well-established law.”

In Brady’s ruling, he lists five “exceptional circumstances” in Woodfox’s case that prompted him to grant the New Orleans native unconditional release, thereby barring a third trial.

The five factors include Woodfox’s poor health and age; the federal court’s “lack of confidence in the State to provide a fair third trial”; the fact that a number of witnesses are dead; prejudice shown toward Woodfox through 40 years of solitary confinement; and the state’s failure to secure a valid conviction after two trials.

“This is the rare, exceptional instance in which it is appropriate for the federal court to step in and prevent the state from attempting to mount an unfair trial,” Woodfox’s lawyers’ statement continued. “Furthermore, there is no penological justification for the harsh conditions under which Mr. Woodfox has been held for over four decades.”

Williams and Kendall practice with the pro bono arm of Squire Patton Boggs, an international law firm. They are based in New York City and became connected with Woodfox’s case around 2008, through the American Civil Liberties Union.

News of Brady’s ruling made headlines around the world — many reporting that Woodfox has been in solitary confinement possibly longer than any U.S. prisoner.

The case has also attracted attention as a cause for human rights groups such as Amnesty International, which has publicly called for Woodfox’s release and decried his solitary confinement.

Woodfox is also the last remaining incarcerated member of the Angola 3. The designation stems from what the group’s supporters believe are wrongful convictions for prison murders in which Woodfox, Wallace and another prisoner, Robert King, were implicated for the purpose of silencing their activism.

The International Coalition to Free the Angola 3 believes the men essentially became political prisoners for organizing an official Black Panther Party chapter inside the prison, which led hunger strikes and other demonstrations opposing inhumane prison conditions. Those conditions, in the early 1970s, included continued segregation, corruption and systematic prison rape.

The three-judge panel indicated the appeal will receive an expedited status. Oral arguments are scheduled for Aug. 31, and a different three-judge panel will likely hear the case.

Meanwhile, Woodfox is still being held in what Williams considers solitary confinement, she said. He’s allowed only one hour a day outdoors — and only on certain days of the week. West Feliciana Parish Detention Center spokeswoman Erin Foster said, though, that Woodfox is being treated the same way as all of the other pretrial inmates. “There’s nothing different for him, specifically,” she said.

Williams said Woodfox is alone in his cell, which is outfitted with solid walls, a steel door and one small window overlooking the yard. He has access to a TV and shower in his cell. Foster could not confirm how many hours Woodfox is allowed of out his cell, and a message left for West Feliciana Parish Detention Center Warden Randall Holden was not returned.