Albert Woodfox got a rare glimpse of the outside world when he left his cell for a court appearance in January. Woodfox was nearly released on bail three weeks ago after spending 36 years in solitary confinement at Angola Prison.
Albert Woodfox got a rare glimpse of the outside world when he left his cell for a court appearance in January. Woodfox was nearly released on bail three weeks ago after spending 36 years in solitary confinement at Angola Prison. Court Photographer
In this three-part series, we take a close look at tensions at Angola prison and doubts that have emerged about the guilt of Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox.
Photo Courtesy of Leontine Verrett
Courtesy Fenton Communications
This is a photo of the crime scene taken shortly after Brent Miller was killed.
This is a photo of the crime scene taken shortly after Brent Miller was killed. Courtesy Fenton Communications
The office of the Louisiana attorney general is swamped. It's managing cases of Hurricane Katrina fraud, political corruption and white-collar crime. But when it comes to the 36-year-old murder of an Angola prison guard, Attorney General James Buddy Caldwell says he's handling the case himself. And to him, it's personal.
"They don't need to mess with me," Caldwell said, "'cause I'm not playing."
One of the men convicted of the murder was nearly let out of prison on bail recently, but Caldwell convinced a federal appellate court to halt the release at the last moment.
It was just the latest twist in a four-decades' old case rife with anger and frustration on all sides.
Popular correctional officer Brent Miller was just 23 when his body was found on the floor of a prison dormitory in 1972. Two men, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, were convicted of the murder and spent the next 36 years in solitary confinement — the longest anyone has ever spent in isolation in the United States.
Recently though, serious questions have emerged about their guilt. Earlier this year a federal judge overturned Woodfox's conviction, finding that he had ineffective lawyers. He ordered the state to retry Woodfox. Three weeks ago, the judge then granted Woodfox bail. That's when Caldwell stepped in with an emergency appeal to stop his release.
Caldwell was thrilled when the court granted his request.
"We're ... not going to let them get away with that kind of thing. [Woodfox] stays at Angola until further order from the court of appeal."
Tensions And 'Black Pantherism'
Back in 1972, Angola was a segregated, entirely white-run institution considered the bloodiest prison in America. Woodfox and Wallace were self-described Black Panthers. After Miller's murder, they were quickly targeted in a racially charged investigation and trial.
Even now, there are still echoes of that tension. In a deposition just three weeks ago, Angola's warden, Burl Cain, had this to say when asked to explain how Woodfox could be kept in solitary confinement for 36 years: "I still know he has the Black Pantherism."
"I still would not want him walking around in my prison because he'd be organizing young new inmates," he continued, "and I'd have the blacks chasing after him and I'd have chaos and conflict."
Many of the state's witnesses have recanted, and new witnesses told NPR another inmate was the killer. But Caldwell warns he's not buying it.
"When you put evidence on like that you're going to suffer from it," he said. "Don't put evidence like that on in front of me because I'm on to 'em. We just simply need to let the truth surface of what has gone on in this case, and that's what I'm doing."
A Release Plan Thwarted
Woodfox had been expected to be released to the custody of his niece who lives in a gated community outside New Orleans. That hope ended last month when Caldwell's prosecutor sent an e-mail from a private account to the community association warning that Woodfox was dangerous. Caldwell is unapologetic and says it's the defense attorney's own fault for not being upfront with neighbors.
But Woodfox's lawyer, Nick Trenticosta, sees it differently.
"What I think is absolutely appalling is the behavior of the attorney general," he said. "To go into a community and begin to foment hostility ... Any fair prosecutor could look at the facts of this case and say this man was wrongfully convicted. A prosecutor's duty is to seek justice, not revenge."
An 'Uphill Climb' For Woodfox
The case is now in the hands of the conservative 5th Circuit, which will decide whether Woodfox will get a new trial in the spring. That might not bode well for Woodfox, says Paul Baier, a law professor at Louisiana State University who has studied the court.
"The 5th Circuit does not take kindly to first-degree murderers," he said.
Woodfox's claim to a new trial rests on an argument of bad lawyering, something Baier says the 5th Circuit is not fond of, either. A few years ago, the court ruled that a lawyer who slept through part of his client's trial did a good enough of a job.
"That's an uphill climb," Baier said. "That's like the last 30 feet before you reach the summit of Mount Everest: It's not easy."
In the meantime, Woodfox, who recently got a brief reprieve from isolation, has been returned to solitary confinement. There, he spends more than 23 hours a day alone in a small cell. Prison officials say he will stay there indefinitely while they investigate Woodfox's visitor and phone call lists. They say they believe that some people listed as members of the defense team, for example, were actually authors or members of the media.
They also charge that Woodfox improperly made three-way phone calls. But Woodfox's lawyers say this is prison bluster, and that the return to solitary is simply the prison's response to the fact that Woodfox was nearly released on bail.
The 5th Circuit is scheduled to hear oral arguments in March and will likely make a decision a month or two later.