NEW ORLEANS—Albert Woodfox, the last of three high-profile Louisiana prisoners known as the “Angola Three,” could walk free within days after a federal judge ordered state officials to release him immediately.
U.S. District Judge James Brady, the judge overseeing the closely watched human rights case, said Monday that the 68-year-old former Black Panther Party prison leader should be granted immediate freedom and not be tried again in the death of a prison guard stabbed to death during prison upheavals in 1972.
Brady, who presided over the case from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, ordered Woodfox’s unconditional release in a strongly worded ruling.
“The only just remedy is an unconditional writ of habeas corpus barring retrial of Mr. Albert Woodfox and releasing Mr. Woodfox from custody immediately,” Brady wrote.
In his ruling, Brady cited doubt that the state could provide a “fair third trial”; the inmate’s age and poor health; the unavailability of witnesses; “the prejudice done onto Mr. Woodfox by spending over forty years in solitary confinement,” and “the very fact that Mr. Woodfox has already been tried twice.”
Woodfox has been in solitary confinement or isolation for 43 years. He was accused, along with three other prisoners, in the stabbing death of Brent Miller, a 23-year-old guard at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Miller was killed during a period of prison upheaval sparked by Black Panther activism aimed at improving conditions inside Louisiana’s notorious prisons.
Amnesty International and the United Nations have condemned Woodfox’s imprisonment as inhumane. Human rights advocates contend solitary confinement of the kind suffered by Woodfox is a form of torture.
Jasmine Heiss, a senior campaigner with Amnesty International USA, called Brady’s ruling “a momentous step toward justice.”
Heiss said Woodfox has been “trapped in a legal process riddled with flaws.”
Woodfox was convicted twice at trial, but both convictions were overturned on the grounds of racial prejudice and lack of evidence.
“Mr. Woodfox has spent 40 years in solitary confinement under constitutionally invalid convictions,” his lawyers said. “The only just remedy is his immediate release from prison.”
George Kendall and Carine Williams, his lawyers, were on their way to seek his release Monday night from the West Feliciana Parish Detention Center, where he has been placed in isolation awaiting his third trial.
Louisiana Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell has vowed to appeal the federal judge’s order.
“With today’s order, the court would see fit to set free a twice-convicted murderer,” said Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for Caldwell. He called Brady’s ruling a “free pass” to freedom “based on faulty procedural issues.”
The state has asked for an emergency stay of Brady’s ruling from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
Woodfox’s lawyers said a third trial would not be in keeping “with the standards of a fair, American trial … We look forward to Mr. Woodfox going home to his family; getting much needed medical attention; and living the remainder of his days in peace.”
Tory Pegram of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3, who is working with Woodfox’s lawyers on his release, said she spoke with Woodfox late Monday.
“He’s excited and nervous,” she said.
Other prisoners in the Angola Three were Robert King and Herman Wallace. All three became members of the Black Panther Party while in prison, Pegram said. She said they were active in hunger strikes and work stoppages to protest conditions at the infamous prison. Pegram said their activism spurred changes that improved prison conditions.
Woodfox and Wallace were both serving armed robbery sentences and contended they were singled out for harsh treatment because of their political activism.
Woodfox and Wallace helped establish a prison chapter of the Black Panther Party at the Angola prison in 1971 and King helped establish a Black Panther chapter in the New Orleans prison, Pegram said.
Wallace died last fall, days after a judge freed him and granted him a new trial. King was released in 2001 after his conviction in the death of a fellow inmate in 1973 was reversed. He has become a public speaker.
Woodfox is in solitary confinement at a prison in St. Francisville, Louisiana, awaiting trial or his release. The 5th Circuit was expected to rule soon — perhaps as early as Tuesday.
Pegram said Woodfox gets to exercise for one hour three times a week during his confinement at the West Feliciana Parish Detention Center. He has a television to watch and a shower in his cell, she added.