ARUN RATH, HOST:
Herman Wallace died early yesterday morning in New Orleans, three days after gaining his freedom. Wallace had spent 41 years in solitary confinement, in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. While already serving a 50-year sentence for armed robbery, Wallace - along with Robert King and Albert Woodfox - was convicted of the murder of a prison guard in 1974. The men became known as the Angola Three, and all of them claimed to be innocent.
On Tuesday, a judge overturned Wallace's conviction on the grounds that he had been denied a fair trial because he was indicted by a grand jury composed solely of men, in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Attorney George Kendall was one of Wallace's advocates.
GEORGE KENDALL: It was just persistence. He knew that it was wrong for women to be excluded from jury service. And there were many times he sat in his cell mystified as to, why is it that I'm not getting relief on this claim? This has been a very bittersweet week.
RATH: After serving the first 18 years without an appeal, the argument that finally won Wallace his release was one he had been making for decades, mostly acting as his own attorney. Attorney George Kendall says little has changed for many indigent prisoners over the past 40 years, despite a change in laws. Albert Woodfox is still in jail, awaiting a trial to overturn his conviction this summer. But another of the Angola Three, Robert King, was released in 2001 after 29 years in solitary confinement. He describes conditions in Angola this way...
ROBERT KING: The cells were pretty bare, and they were maybe about - maybe 3 feet wide, and about 6 feet long. It's almost like it was in a tomb. And there was a slab of concrete that you slept on, and you ate three meals a day. You had two slices of bread each meal. During the wintertime, you froze and during the summertime, you was overheated. But in any event, you was starved.
RATH: In 2009, Wallace was transferred to a prison dormitory, where he could socialize with other prisoners. Even though he was returned to solitary after nine months, his attorney, George Kendall, says Wallace was grateful for that opportunity - and for his release this week.
KENDALL: And it's tragic it took 40 years for him to find a court that would say, you're right, Mr. Wallace. That violated your constitutional rights. You are entitled to a new trial.
RATH: Herman Wallace died of liver cancer. He was 71 years old.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RATH: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.