MELISSA BLOCK, host:
A few weeks ago, we brought you a story about two men who spent 36 years in solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison. It's the longest any inmate in the U.S. has spent in isolation. One of the men, Albert Woodfox, was about to be released, but instead he's now back in isolation. In a case marked by tension and anger on all sides, the legal twists keep coming, as NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.
LAURA SULLIVAN: The attorney general of Louisiana has a lot to keep his office busy: Katrina fraud, political corruption, white-collar crime. But when it comes to the 36-year-old murder of a prison guard, Attorney General James "Buddy" Caldwell says he's handling the case himself, and it's personal.
Attorney General JAMES "BUDDY" CALDWELL (Democrat, Louisiana): They don't need to mess with me, because I'm not playing.
SULLIVAN: Albert Woodfox was convicted of the 1972 murder of Brent Miller, a popular young correctional officer. A judge overturned that conviction earlier this year. Three weeks ago, the judge then granted Woodfox bail, but the same day, just a few minutes before midnight, Attorney General Caldwell sent an emergency appeal to the Fifth Circuit. The court stepped in and halted Woodfox's release.
Attorney General CALDWELL: We're going to give the man something because we are not going to him get away with that kind of thing. He stays in Angola until further orders from the Court of Appeal.
SULLIVAN: Back in 1972, the segregated, entirely white-run Angola prison was named the bloodiest prison in America. Woodfox and another inmate, Herman Wallace, were self-described Black Panthers. They were quickly targeted after the murder 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, explained the reasoning behind keeping Woodfox in solitary for 36 years. Letting him out, he said, would incite black inmates and cause chaos and conflict.
Mr. BURL CAIN (Warden, Angola Prison): I still know he has Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around in my prison, because he'd be organizing young, new inmates, and I'd have the blacks chasing after him, and I'd have chaos and conflict.
SULLIVAN: Many of the state's witnesses have recanted, and new witnesses told NPR another inmate was the killer. But Attorney General Caldwell says he's not buying it.
Attorney General CALDWELL: When you put on evidence like that, you're going to suffer from it. Don't put evidence like that on in front of me, because I'm on to them. We just simply need to let the truth surface of what has gone on in this case, and that's what I'm doing.
SULLIVAN: 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 email from a private account to the community association warning that Woodfox was dangerous. Caldwell says it's the defense attorney's own fault for not being upfront with neighbors.
Attorney General CALDWELL: The problem is in their mirror(ph).
Mr. NICK TRENTACOSTA (Defense Lawyer for Albert Woodfox): What I think is absolutely appalling is the behavior of the attorney general.
SULLIVAN: Nick Trentacosta is one of Woodfox's defense lawyers.
Mr. TRENTACOSTA: 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. And a prosecutor's duty is to seek justice, not revenge.
SULLIVAN: The case is now in the hands of the conservative Fifth Circuit, which will decide in the spring whether or not Woodfox will get a new trial.
Professor PAUL BAIER (Law, Louisiana State University): The Fifth Circuit does not take kindly to first-degree murderers.
SULLIVAN: Paul Baier is a law professor at Louisiana State University and has studied the court. He says the Fifth Circuit has not been particularly sympathetic to the claims of bad lawyering. And that's what Woodfox's case rests on.
Professor BAIER: That's an uphill climb. That's like the last 30 feet before you reach the summit of Mount Everest. It's not easy.
SULLIVAN: Woodfox, who got a brief reprieve from isolation recently, has been returned to solitary confinement where he spends more than 23 hours a day alone in a small cell. Prison officials say he's under investigation. They say some people on his phone and visitor lists are not who they claim to be, something Woodfox's attorneys dispute. The Fifth Circuit is scheduled to hear oral arguments in March and will likely make a decision about six weeks later. Laura Sullivan, NPR News.
BLOCK: You can hear Laura's original stories about this case and see photos of the people involved at npr.org.
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