Why Did Key Angola Witness Go To The 'Dog Pen'?

This is the final part of a three-part series.

Hezekiah Brown i i

When he was first questioned, Hezekiah Brown reported he did not know anything about Brent Miller's murder, but eventually he became the key witness to the crime. Shortly after his testimony, he was moved to the "dog pen," where he looked after prison bloodhounds. Courtesy of Fenton Communications hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Fenton Communications
Hezekiah Brown

When he was first questioned, Hezekiah Brown reported he did not know anything about Brent Miller's murder, but eventually he became the key witness to the crime. Shortly after his testimony, he was moved to the "dog pen," where he looked after prison bloodhounds.

Courtesy of Fenton Communications

Life At Angola Prison

In the first two parts of this series, we take a close look at the brutal murder of Brent Miller and the unusual investigation that followed.

Take a tour through the events that left one man dead and two others in solitary confinement for 36 years. Courtesy Fenton Communications hide caption

From Birth To Death At Angola
itoggle caption Courtesy Fenton Communications
Colonel Nyati Bolt i i

Colonel Nyati Bolt lives off the grid, planting his garden and admiring the fruits of his labor. He spent 20 years in solitary confinement at Angola after testifying that Albert Woodfox did not kill Brent Miller. Laura Sullivan/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Laura Sullivan/NPR
Colonel Nyati Bolt

Colonel Nyati Bolt lives off the grid, planting his garden and admiring the fruits of his labor. He spent 20 years in solitary confinement at Angola after testifying that Albert Woodfox did not kill Brent Miller.

Laura Sullivan/NPR

Judge Urges Reversal

A federal magistrate recommended that Albert Woodfox's conviction be reversed on the grounds that he was not adequately represented by his lawyer. You can read the whole report here.

  

Based on the report, a federal judge overturned his conviction. The state is appealing.

Louisiana's Angola prison is often referred to as "The Farm." On one edge of its vast acres of corn and cotton are the prison's isolation cells, where two inmates, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, spent the past 36 years in solitary confinement. On the other side, high on a hill is a far more comfortable place: the dog pen.

"This is the place to be, I mean look around," says inmate Randolph Matthews, standing in front of a dozen barking dogs separated by cages. "There's no fences, you live in a house, you have perks. If you didn't know it, you would never know you were even in prison."

Matthews and a few other inmates live in a beige house next to the dogs. This select group doesn't have to deal with correctional officers or eating with other inmates. Rather than working in the fields, dog pen residents spend their days caring for the bloodhounds and attack dogs that chase down escapees.

It took Matthews almost two decades to work his way to the dog pen. It took Hezekiah Brown only a few days.

Brown was the state's main witness in the case against Wallace and Woodfox, who were charged with the brutal murder of a young correctional officer named Brent Miller in 1972. Now all these years later, questions are being raised about the testimony on which the case stands.

Favors For Brown?

Brown testified he saw Wallace, Woodfox and two others stab Miller to death with a lawn mower blade. He also testified he received no favors for implicating Wallace and Woodfox.

But as it turns out, that's not entirely true. The warden at the time, Murray Henderson, admitted years later that he promised Brown a pardon in exchange for his statement. Brown also got to live at the dog pen, and it seems there may have been a little something else.

According to old prison records reviewed by NPR, once a week for years, an officer would drive up to the dog pen and give Brown a carton of cigarettes. At a time when inmates would pay another inmate a pack of cigarettes to stab someone, former prisoners say a whole carton could get you a lot.

Henderson's deputy, Lloyd Hoyle, says he had no idea Henderson was supplying Brown with a carton a week.

"I'm his deputy warden and that's the first time I ever heard that," Hoyle, 81, says, sitting on the couch in his living room just a few miles from Angola. "If Murray would have told me, 'Hey I want you to give this inmate a cartoon of cigarettes,' I would have said, 'You can shove it.' I'm not giving no convict no carton of cigarettes. Forget it."

Hoyle pauses for a minute and then says, "I never used informants, because they always wanted something. I always felt if they're going to give it to you, they should give it because you've treated them appropriately."

A 'Vulnerable Time' In Louisiana

So it comes down to this: Did Brown, the man almost solely responsible for the conviction of two people, make up the entire story to help himself out? Louisiana's Attorney General James Buddy Caldwell says absolutely not.

Caldwell says he believes Brown, and more importantly, so did the justice system.

"Two grand juries, two Louisiana juries, the Louisiana Supreme Court, the Louisiana appellate court system apparently believed Hezekiah Brown," Caldwell says. "That's what the system is about."

Caldwell says far from getting favors, Brown put his own life at stake by coming forward and standing up to political radicals. (Wallace and Woodfox were members of the Black Panthers.) He says Brown was sent to the dog pen for his own safety.

"This is the murder of a prison guard at a very vulnerable time in the state of Louisiana," he says.

Life In Solitary

Wallace has been appealing his case in state court. But a few months ago, Woodfox's case was examined by a federal magistrate. Under that scrutiny, prison officials moved the two out of solitary and into a maximum-security wing of the prison. It's possible for NPR to interview the inmates by phone, but Angola officials say if they knew such an interview took place, the men would be returned to solitary confinement.

Woodfox and Wallace spent 23 hours a day in a windowless concrete cell that contained only a cement bed, table and single light. Over the years, they learned to pass the time. Woodfox has read every page of every law book at Angola. Wallace perfected the art of making flowers out of paper; it can take up to a whole day just to make one bunch.

And on the outside, many officials, like former deputy warden Hoyle feel justice was done.

"I have no doubt that they're guilty. Period," he says. "Believe me they were on that yard and they killed that boy. If it was your son or your husband, how would you feel?"

When asked how she feels, Brent Miller's widow, Leontine Verrett said, "very, very angry."

"All these years, I believed that these men did it, I believed it," she says. "Why would the state lie? But now I'm finding out that maybe these men did not do this. It's very frustrating."

Who Else Could Have Killed Miller?

One former inmate at the time, Billy Wayne Sinclair, thinks they didn't do it either. He says an inmate named Irvin Breaux, whose nickname was "Life," told him he killed Miller.

Sinclair and other inmates say Breaux was involved with the inmates who firebombed a guard shack the day before Miller's murder. Buried in FBI reports is a note that a group calling themselves the The VanGuard Army took credit for the bombing and promised more attacks.

Sinclair says Breaux told him Miller walked in on him and other inmates plotting an attack. They panicked and killed him.

"I [knew] Life personally," Sinclair says. "He had no reason to lie to me. He had no reason to try to impress me or make himself out to be some dangerous person. It was well known he was one of the most dangerous inmates at the prison."

Breaux, like so many others involved in this case, is dead. But one man is still alive. His name is Colonel Nyati Bolt. Bolt lives off the grid — no phone, barely an address. It took four inmates and an old post office box to find him.

Another Witness?

Bolt is standing in his vegetable garden behind a small trailer. At first, he isn't sure he wants to talk about Wallace and Woodfox. He says he barely knew them in 1972 and talking about them never brought him anything but trouble. But after a while, he agrees to tell the story again, just like he did 36 years ago.

"Albert was with me," he says intently. "We walked from the dormitory straight on up to the chow hall."

Bolt says he was with Woodfox at the dining hall when Miller was murdered, and he says he told that to prison officials. The response was swift. Officers transferred him to solitary confinement.

"[The officers] said, Colonel, we're transferring you to [solitary confinement]," Bolt recalls. "I said for what? He said, didn't you have something to do with this thing down here? I said, you got to be out of your mind."

But the officers moved him that day to isolation.

"Next thing I knew, I never saw daylight since," Bolt says shaking his head. "After that I never saw the walk no more."

Bolt never saw the prison walk, the yard, the grass, the stars. He testified at Woodfox's trail, which seemed only to seal his fate. For the next 20 years, he was kept in isolation in a windowless concrete cell. But he never changed his story.

In 1992, Bolt was released. By the time Woodfox's second trial came around, he had disappeared.

On his arms, as Bolt leans over a tomato plant, you can see old green tattoos from another life. He says it's hard for him to talk about all those years he spent alone. But he says he would do it all the same, if he could do it over.

"When I made my statement, I made it honest, I made it out of my heart," Bolt says. "They can say whatever they want to say because that's the way it went. And I can't cut it any other way than that."

But whether you believe Bolt or Sinclair or Brown, there is one more piece of evidence. Next to Miller's body was a single bloody fingerprint. It doesn't match Wallace, Woodfox or the other two men originally charged with the crime (who have since died).

The print doesn't match any of the officers or the inmates who moved the body. But deep in a drawer in an office at Angola there are identification cards bearing the fingerprints of every inmate housed at the prison in 1972.

Louisiana's attorney general Buddy Caldwell says the state will never test the print.

"A fingerprint can come from anywhere," Caldwell explains. "We're not going to be fooled by that."

'The Most Dangerous Person On The Planet'

Caldwell says he's so sure Woodfox and Wallace are guilty, he will fight this case all the way to the Supreme Court. And he may have to. A federal judge recently overturned Woodfox's conviction, saying he had ineffective lawyers. He told Caldwell: Release him or retry him.

Caldwell is appealing, but in the meantime, a judge could grant Woodfox bail, possibly within the next two weeks.

"This is a very dangerous person," Caldwell says. "This is the most dangerous person on the planet."

That's the same reason prison officials give for keeping the two men in solitary for 36 years.

As you leave Angola, you can see the dormitories, the officers in their guard shacks, the men bent over in the cotton fields. It's the same as it looked 40 years ago, and 100 years ago.

At the last guard post, there is an inscription. It's a Bible verse, Philippians 3:12. It says we can't change the past; we can only press on to the future. But the past is as much a part of this place as it ever was.

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