Albert Woodfox, the only member of the Angola 3 still behind bars, was indicted Thursday for the third time in the murder of a Louisiana State Penitentiary prison guard that occurred at the prison more than four decades ago.
Woodfox has been held in solitary confinement for more than 40 years as a result of his former convictions in the 1972 slaying of 23-year-old guard, Brent Miller. Now 67, Woodfox continues to maintain his innocence in the fatal stabbing and has a wide-reaching network of supporters advocating for his release. The indictment comes after a federal appeals court, in a ruling issued Nov. 20, agreed with a lower court that his conviction for Miller’s murder should be vacated.
Woodfox’s legal team earlier this week sought his release from prison on bail in anticipation that the state would try to re-indict him or appeal the latest decision of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. Louisiana Attorney Buddy Caldwell announced in a press release Thursday a grand jury from West Feliciana Parish, where the prison at Angola is located, re-indicted Woodfox on the murder charge earlier that day.
“The facts of the case remain solid,” Caldwell said in the statement. “Despite Woodfox’s last-ditch efforts to obtain a ‘get out of jail free’ pass on grand jury selection issues, the proof of his guilt in committing the murder is undeniable.”
A three-judge panel from the Fifth Circuit, in its November ruling, unanimously upheld a lower court’s ruling that overturned Woodfox’s conviction. The court agreed with U.S. District Judge James Brady that Woodfox’s 1998 retrial was constitutionally mired by discrimination in the selection of the grand jury foreperson.
Amnesty International, a major human rights organization, has called for Woodfox’s release and has decried conditions of his solitary confinement, which a November editorial in The New York Times called “barbaric beyond measure.” Amnesty International started a petition this week asking Gov. Bobby Jindal not to oppose bail for Woodfox if it’s granted.
Steven Hawkins, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in a statement that Caldwell is “hell-bent” on keeping Woodfox behind bars.
“He should stop pursuing a campaign of vengeance by trying to re-indict a man who has already spent more than four decades in cruel confinement, after a legal process tainted with flaws,” the statement says.
Woodfox’s attorney George Kendall released the following statement in response to the indictment:
“We are extremely disappointed in today’s indictment of Albert Woodfox who has maintained his innocence since he was charged 42 years ago. This case has already spanned four decades and cost Louisiana millions of dollars, while Mr. Woodfox has been unjustly held in solitary confinement.”
Woodfox’s designation as a member of the Angola 3 stems from what the group’s supporters believe are wrongful convictions for prison murders in which Woodfox and two other prisoners 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,” Pegram has said.
Taking the 42-year-old case to trial presents obvious challenges to all parties, but Pegram said Woodfox’s legal team is “not at all scared” of arguing the case in court and feels confident he will prevail.
An affidavit says the murder occurred as Miller was talking with fellow inmate Hezekiah Brown on Brown’s bed when Woodfox and two others pounced on him, leaving Miller with 32 stab wounds.
A year after Brown testified to help secure the convictions, Louisiana State Penitentiary Warden C. Murray Henderson wrote a letter seeking a pardon for Brown, who had served less than eight years of a life sentence, after Brown testified he was not promised favors for his testimony. An NPR report on the case links to the letter here. Prison officials also arranged to pay for his clemency and for a weekly delivery of a carton of cigarettes. Brown was eventually pardoned by Gov. Edwin Edwards in 1986 and died in 1996.
Pegram said there was no physical evidence linking Woodfox to the murder, and all of the witnesses either later recanted or were promised favors such as pardons. Many of the witnesses, too, are dead. A bloody fingerprint taken from the crime scene did not match Woodfox or his co-defendants, she said. That DNA evidence, which could potentially incriminate another suspect, has sine been lost.
“If the state really wants to go down this road, they will be reminded there is no physical evidence that links him to the crime, and witnesses have all been impeached or recanted,” Pegram said. “We are happy to say he will have the opportunity to demonstrate to the world that (Woodfox) did not commit this crime.”
Caldwell noted in his statement two juries have already convicted Woodfox in the murder, and now three grand juries have indicted him. The indictment does not preclude the attorney general from seeking relief from U.S. Supreme Court to get the conviction upheld, Attorney General spokesman Steven Hartman said.
The slain prison guard’s widow, Teenie Rogers, attended a rally in October 2013 with Angola 3 supporters demanding the state halt its attempts to keep Woodfox incarcerated for her late husband’s murder. She has said she believes Woodfox and his codefendant, the late Herman Wallace, were not involved in her husband’s death and has previously called for their release. In 2008, she told The Los Angeles Times, under the last name from a previous marriage: “If I were on that jury, I don’t think I would have convicted them.”
“Prior to arriving at Angola, Albert Woodfox began committing a series of crimes with escalated from minor offenses to violent crimes, including seven armed robberies and five aggravated rapes,” the attorney general’s statement says.
The release also says he faced five life sentences for the rape charges, however an attached affidavit suggests Woodfox was never convicted on any rape charges.
Moreover, in a 2008 court order from Judge Brady, the judge says, “given how long ago these arrests occurred as well as the fact that Mr. Woodfox was never convicted of these crimes… those allegations were irrelevant to Woodfox’s petition for release.”
The affidavit paints a similar picture of Woodfox as a danger to the public that the state used in 2008 to prevent Woodfox from being granted bail while the appeals process played out. “We will continue to fight to ensure that this dangerous man is held fully accountable for his actions,” Caldwell said Thursday.
Hawkins’ statement criticized Caldwell’s recent accusations against Woodfox regarding the rapes.
“(Caldwell’s) public accusations that Albert is a ‘serial rapist’ not only cross ethical boundaries, but inflame the public against a man who has suffered unspeakable cruelty at the hands of the Louisiana authorities,” Hawkins said.
Wallace, a fellow Angola 3 member, was released in October of 2013, two days before his death from complications of liver cancer.
Robert King, the third member of the Angola 3 who was convicted of killing a fellow inmate, was exonerated and released from prison in 2001 after 29 years in solitary. King remains active in the campaign to release Woodfox from prison and end the practice of solitary confinement.
Woodfox’s 1974 murder conviction was first overturned in 1992 by a state court due to “systematic discrimination.” He was then re-indicted in 1993 by a new grand jury and reconvicted five years later.
But District Judge Brady overturned this second conviction in 2008, stating Woodfox’s defense counsel was ineffective. The state appealed, and the case made its way for the first time to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Once there, the court reversed Brady’s ruling and determined that while his trial “was not perfect,” Woodfox couldn’t prove there would have been a different outcome with different counsel.
Woodfox’s attorneys then focused in on the discrimination issue, arguing there were also issues with the 1993 indictment because black grand jury foreman were woefully underrepresented in West Feliciana Parish in the previous 13 years.
Brady again agreed, overturning Woodfox’s conviction a second time in May 2012. The case was kicked up to the Fifth Circuit after the state appealed. The Fifth Circuit agreed, in the Nov. 20 ruling, that conviction should be overturned. The same court then denied, in a Feb. 3 ruling, the state’s request for a review of its decision by the Fifth Circuit’s full panel of judges.
Woodfox, of New Orleans, was originally sentenced to prison at Angola on charges of armed robbery. That sentence would have expired decades ago, coalition manager Tory Pegram said. Woodfox was at Angola only a few years before he was implicated, along with Wallace, in Miller’s murder. He’s currently housed at David Wade Correctional Center in Homer.