Favors, Inconsistencies Taint Angola Murder Case

This is the second in a three-part series.

Life At Angola Prison

In the first part in this series, we explore the unusual culture that led wardens to keep two men in solitary confinement for 36 years.

Pardon Letters

Pardon Letters

Warden Murray Henderson wrote these letters to state officials pressing for a pardon for Hezekiah Brown, the key witness in the Brent Miller case. One letter also confirms that Henderson and the prison were buying cigarettes for Brown, which contradicts statements that he wasn't given any favors.

Brent Miller's widow, Leontine Verrett. i i

hide captionBrent Miller's widow, Leontine Verrett, sits at the dinner table with her current husband Dean Verrett.

Amy Walters/NPR
Brent Miller's widow, Leontine Verrett.

Brent Miller's widow, Leontine Verrett, sits at the dinner table with her current husband Dean Verrett.

Amy Walters/NPR

The Jury Forewoman

Anne Butler
Courtesy Butler Greenwood

How did the wife of the lead investigator on Brent Miller's murder end up on the grand jury that reindicted Albert Woodfox in the '90s? Even Anne Butler, above, says she wonders what she was doing on the jury. In addition to her husband's connections to the case, she had written a book about the case, which she says she passed around to fellow jurors.

Here, the story gets stranger. Years later, that lead investigator, Murry Henderson, shot Butler, from whom he had recently separated, five times on her front porch. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Brent Miller was born and raised in Louisiana's Angola Prison, in a special neighborhood built just for correctional officers. It was there that he fell in love with a girl who lived just up the street. One morning, three months after they were married, the young bride's sister came running to find her.

"My sister said there had been an accident, that Brent was hurt," recalls Leontine Verrett.

Decades later, Verrett still remembers how worried her husband had been that morning. The day before, an officer barely escaped when inmates firebombed a guard shack. Be careful, she had told him. But her sister's face told her it had not been enough.

"I wanted her to take me to him, and that's when she said that he was dead," Verrett recalls. "I remember going home and seeing my mom and dad, and my brother. Everybody was there. Everybody was just so broken."

The death of 23-year-old Miller turned the small insular prison community upside-down. But four decades have brought no more clarity to the crime than there was then. Two men were convicted, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox. They spent the next 36 years in solitary confinement — the longest any inmate is known to have been in isolation in the United States. But now, all these years later, questions are surfacing about the witnesses and evidence that led to their convictions. Core pieces of the story are no longer fitting together.

A Disorganized Investigation

State prosecutors say that around 7:30 a.m. on April 17, four inmates — Wallace, Woodfox, Chester Jackson and Gilbert Montegut — walked into the Pine 1 dormitory and stabbed Miller to death.

"Not once, but 38 times," says Angola's deputy warden at the time, Lloyd Hoyle, who took charge of the investigation with his boss. "[Miller had] just been recently married. He hadn't been at the prison very long, all of sudden he's annihilated, assassinated."

The response was swift. Prison officials rounded up more than 200 inmates, looking for radicals — Black Panthers like Wallace and Woodfox — and brought them to a makeshift interrogation center, one floor above death row.

"You heard hollering and screaming and the bodies being slammed against the walls," says Billy Wayne Sinclair, a white inmate on death row in 1972. "Upstairs you could smell tear gas bombs. They would come in there and set them off. So we would have to wet stuff and put it to our faces and turn our fans on and hope that we could suck as much out as we could. We heard the beatings that were going on for weeks after that."

Several inmates said it was a bad month to be black at Angola. According to court records, prison officials never questioned a single white inmate.

Sinclair said he and his fellow death row inmates would talk about how there didn't seem to be any logic to who was being interrogated.

"These redneck prison guards didn't have any systematic way of investigating something," Sinclair said. "The only thing they knew is beat the hell out of a person to make him give up what he knew."

A Witness Emerges

But then there was a sudden breakthrough in the form of inmate Hezekiah Brown, a serial rapist with a life sentence. When he was first questioned, he said he didn't know anything. But a short time later, prison officials reported that Brown witnessed the crime.

Brown testified that he was alone in the dorm that morning, making coffee for Miller. He said the four men burst in, grabbed Miller and began stabbing him furiously.

Woodfox and Wallace were convicted by all white juries in less than two hours. Chester Jackson took a deal for a lesser charge and testified for the state. Gilbert Montegut was found guilty of only a minor charge after an officer provided an alibi. Jackson and Montegut have both since died.

"Hezekiah Brown was a very good witness," says Anne Butler, who heard him testify. "And he saw what he saw."

Butler wasn't there when Woodfox and Wallace were first convicted in the early 1970s. But in the 1990s, when Woodfox got a new trial, she was forewoman of the grand jury that re-indicted him.

"For somebody black in the prison at that time when it was so out of control to testify against Black Panthers who had other members out in the prison population, took a lot of courage on his part," Butler said from the porch of her southern antebellum home, just down the road from the prison.

Influence And Favors

In 1996, shortly after Butler heard him testify, Brown died.

But there's a lot more to this story. Butler wasn't just an average citizen doing her civic duty on the local grand jury; she's the former wife of Angola warden Murray Henderson, the man who led the Brent Miller investigation. She also wrote a book, which she says she passed around to fellow jurors, about how Woodfox and Wallace did it. Even she wonders what she was doing on that jury.

"I went to the [district attorney] and said, 'You are going to put me off of this' and he said no," she said.

It's one of a number of problems that seem to litter the trial history of Woodfox and Wallace. Take Hezekiah Brown. He repeatedly said he received no favors or promises in exchange for his testimony. But that's not entirely true. A few years before Brown died, Henderson admitted he in fact promised him a pardon.

And sure enough, buried in the prison's records, is letter after letter Henderson wrote to state officials asking for a pardon.

In one 1975 letter to a New Orleans judge, Henderson wrote, "It is my personal opinion that the state had an obligation to try to help this individual in some way."

In 1986, Gov. Edwin Edwards set Brown free.

"I was on death row with Hezekiah Brown. Hezekiah Brown was a professional snitch," remembers Billy Sinclair, who was sentenced to death for shooting a store clerk. His sentence was later amended to life with parole, and he is now free.

"[Brown] forever did everything he could to ingratiate himself to white authority," Sinclair says. "All the other inmates knew that if you were going to do anything wrong, don't let Hezekiah Brown see you."

Even the deputy warden at the time didn't think too highly of him. Hilton Butler wouldn't talk to NPR about the murder or Brown. But, in a taped conversation with Anne Butler for her book, he says you could make Brown say anything you wanted him to say.

"Hezekiah was one you could put words into his mouth," Hilton Butler told Anne Butler. (The two are not related.)

Sinclair says that's what he remembers about Brown, too.

"I know that Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox and Chester Jackson and Gilbert Montegut did not kill Brent Miller in front of Hezekiah Brown and let him live," Sinclair said. "It is no way in the world they would put themselves in jeopardy of killing a freeman in the presence of the most notorious snitch in the entire prison complex. That is not going to happen."

Sinclair and several other inmates who were there at the time say there was a feeling that prison officials grabbed the wrong men.

An Incinerating Story

Months after the crime, the state found four other witnesses, inmates who said they saw one, two or all four men running from the Pine 1 dormitory — though oddly none of the witnesses saw each other. One of the four was legally blind. One was heavily medicated at the time. And the other two have recanted. One of those, Howard Baker, said he made the story up because prison officials told him they'd help him get out of Angola.

He originally testified that he watched Wallace run from the crime scene, enter the license tag plant and burn his bloody clothes in the incinerator. Thirty years later, when he changed his story, Baker said he could never believe in all those years no one ever picked up on the one huge problem with his statement: There is no incinerator in the license tag plant.

In part three, we examine additional cracks in the case against Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox. A long-lost witness is found, another suspect emerges and a possible legal break could free one of the men.

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