ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
An update now on a story we've been following on this program. In 1972, a Louisiana guard was stabbed to death on the floor of a dormitory at the notorious Angola prison. Two inmates were convicted of the crime after a racially-charged investigation. Both were sent to solitary confinement and that's where they've been for almost 37 years.
But new witnesses and evidence have raised questions about the men's guilt. And today, a federal court of appeals heard arguments in a case that will decide whether one of the men will get a new trial.
NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.
LAURA SULLIVAN: The lawyers appealing Albert Woodfox's murder conviction say it comes down to this.
Mr. NICK TRENTICOSTA (Attorney): Mr. Woodfox would've been acquitted had his lawyers not been asleep at the wheel.
SULLIVAN: Nick Trenticosta is representing Woodfox. Standing outside of the courthouse, he says Woodfox's original lawyers failed to track down witnesses, challenge testimony or object when the prosecution suggested a bloody fingerprint belonged to Woodfox, when it didn't.
Mr. TRENTICOSTA: If they would've done the fundamental ABC's of defense, he wouldn't be sitting in prison right now. And that's what this case is about.
SULLIVAN: It's taken years for Woodfox's case to get to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. And in many ways, this is a make or break moment for Woodfox. If today's three-judge panel sides with him, Woodfox will get a new trial and a murder that is now 37 years old. If he loses, he will, at best, have to take his legal case back to the beginning.
Today, in the courtroom, Kyle Duncan argued the case for the Louisiana attorney general's office. He told the panel, Woodfox's lawyers were vigorous, even cutting-edge in their defense. Duncan said the lawyers weren't ineffective, they were just unsuccessful.
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's Attorney General James Buddy Caldwell, said he felt confident the panel would see the case the way he sees it.
Mr. JAMES BUDDY CALDWELL (Louisiana Attorney General): Frankly, this case is not about innocence.
SULLIVAN: Caldwell says he's ready to go trial if the court rules against him.
Mr. CALDWELL: You've got three eye-witnesses within 15 feet of this murder. There was something in there that was wrong, I'd be the first one to the door and let him out. But you got to look at the evidence.
SULLIVAN: That evidence has grown increasingly complicated over the decades. The case largely rests on one deceased prisoner who said he saw Woodfox murder prison guard Brent Miller early one morning in 1972. But 20 years later, state records reveal that the warden at the time promised the witness, Hezekiah Brown, a pardon for his testimony, which Brown eventually got.
Of the other witnesses, two have recanted and one was legally blind. But as the state argued today, he wasn't deaf and this witness says he heard Woodfox talking about the murder in addition to seeing it take place. Over the years there have also been other suspects, like a man named Irvin Life Breaux.
Mr. BILLY WAYNE SINCLAIR (Former Inmate, Angola Prison): One day, Life told me that he's the one that killed Miller.
SULLIVAN: Billy Wayne Sinclair was an inmate at Angola at the time of the murder. And he told NPR recently that Irvin Breaux confessed to him. He says no one he knew believed Hezekiah Brown saw Woodfox murder Brent Miller.
Mr. SINCLAIR: Hezekiah Brown was a professional snitch.
SULLIVAN: But Irvin Breaux, like so many people in this case, is dead. After the hearing, both sides said they felt the judges seemed sympathetic to their side. Defense attorney Nick Trenticosta.
Mr. TRENTICOSTA: We feel very good. The court is clearly troubled by this case.
SULLIVAN: But both Trenticosta and Attorney General Caldwell said if the case does go back to trial, 37 years is a long time to bring any case to court. The Fifth Circuit is expected to reach a decision in the next few months.
Laura Sullivan, NPR News.