A federal appeals court heard arguments Tuesday in the case against a Louisiana inmate who has spent nearly four decades in solitary confinement.
The case now hinges on whether Albert Woodfox, who was convicted of murdering Louisiana prison guard Brent Miller in 1972, had effective lawyers.
Woodfox was tried once in 1972 and again in 1998. Both times, his lawyers say, his original attorneys failed to present a basic defense.
"Mr. Woodfox would have been acquitted if his lawyers had not been asleep at the wheel," Woodfox's lawyer, Nick Trenticosta, said outside the federal courthouse. "If they would have done the fundamental ABCs of defense, he wouldn't be sitting in prison right now. And that's what this case was about."
It's a climactic moment in the case against Woodfox: He could either be granted a new trial or could face his life sentence with little hope at another legal remedy.
Woodfox and another inmate, Herman Wallace, were convicted of the 1972 murder while they were inmates at Angola prison after a racially charged investigation. Woodfox and Wallace are black; the victim, Miller, was white.
The two men were sent to solitary confinement, where they have remained for the better part of four decades. But recently, new witnesses and evidence have raised questions about the men's guilt.
In court Tuesday, Trenticosta argued that Woodfox's original lawyers failed to track down witnesses, challenge testimony or object when the prosecution suggested a bloody fingerprint belonged to Woodfox when, in fact, it didn't. But the state countered that Woodfox's lawyers were vigorous, even cutting edge, in their defense.
Kyle Duncan, who was arguing for the state of Louisiana, told the court that Woodfox's lawyers weren't ineffective: They were just unsuccessful.
A Complicated Case
Judge Carolyn King questioned Duncan about a number of witnesses that the defense was unable to cross-examine — suggesting that was perhaps unfair to the defense.
But after the hearing, Louisiana Attorney General James "Buddy" Caldwell said he felt confident the panel would see the case the way he sees it.
"Frankly, this case is not about innocence," Caldwell said on the courthouse steps. "You've got three eyewitnesses within 15 feet of this murder. If there was something in there that was wrong, I would be the first one to the door to let them out. But you got to look at the evidence."
That evidence has grown increasingly complicated over the decades. The case largely rests on one deceased prisoner who said he saw Woodfox kill Miller early one morning in 1972. But 20 years later, state records revealed that the warden at the time promised the witness, inmate Hezekiah Brown, a pardon for his testimony. It's a pardon Brown eventually got.
Of the other witnesses, two have recanted and one, Paul Fobb, was legally blind. But as the state argued Tuesday, Fobb wasn't deaf. And Fobb says he heard Woodfox talking about the murder in addition to seeing it take place.
Over the years, there have also been other suspects, including a man named Irvin "Life" Breaux.
Billy Wayne Sinclair, an inmate at Angola prison at the time of the murders, recently told NPR that Breaux confessed to him.
"One day, Life told me that he's the one who killed Miller," Sinclair said.
Sinclair said no one he knew believed Brown saw Woodfox murder Miller.
"Hezekiah Brown was a professional snitch," he said.
But Breaux, like so many people in this case, is dead.
Back To Solitary
After the hearing, both sides said they felt the judges seemed sympathetic to their side.
Defense attorney Trenticosta said he felt good. "The court is clearly troubled by this case," he said.
But both Trenticosta and Attorney General Caldwell agreed that if the case does go back to trial, 37 years is a long time to bring any case to court. The 5th Circuit is expected to reach a decision in the next few months.
In the meantime, Woodfox, now in his 60s, is back in solitary confinement, and it's largely up to Angola's prison warden, Burl Cain, to decide when he might be let out. Cain has said he has no plans to ever release Woodfox or Wallace from isolation because he believes they pose a threat to the prison.
NPR freelancer Eileen Fleming contributed to this report.