A federal appeals court has ruled that a man who has spent about 40 years in solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison should have his conviction overturned.
Albert Woodfox, the only member of the so-called Angola 3 still incarcerated, was convicted of the 1972 murder of a young prison guard named Brent Miller. Woodfox was found guilty along with fellow inmate Herman Wallace.
Wallace's conviction was overturned last year as his health was failing. He was released from prison last October and died a few days later. (The third member of the group was not connected to the Miller case but was held in isolation while in prison.)
In Woodfox's case, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Thursday that the lower courts were right when they found racial discrimination in the selection of the grand jury foreperson during his second trial in 1998.
Woodfox, 67, is believed to be the longest-serving inmate held in isolation in a U.S. prison.
"When I first heard there were two individuals in solitary confinement for that long, I thought, Not in America," Woodfox' attorney George Kendall told NPR. "When I first went to meet them I thought they would be lying on the floor like basket cases. It's taken every ounce of strength for them to not be broken by this thing. And now there's only [Woodfox.]"
But in addition to the decades in solitary, the murder itself — as well as the subsequent investigation — have cast long shadows over one of the most notorious prisons in America, Louisiana State Penitentiary, or Angola.
A 2008 NPR investigation of the murder raised serious issues about that investigation, including favors and inconsistencies that tainted the state's main witness, its original grand jury and its prison staff, while another inmate emerged as the possible killer in what was then a violent, racially segregated prison.
Still, the state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said at the time that he was convinced Woodfox and Wallace were guilty and that he would fight to keep them in prison.
The state can appeal the latest ruling in Woodfox's case to the U.S. Supreme Court or ask the full panel of appellate judges to review Thursday's decision. If it doesn't appeal, the state will have to re-try Woodfox for the 42-year-old murder or set him free.
Attorney general spokeswoman Laura Gerdes told NPR that Caldwell is reviewing the decision and considering how to proceed.
Update at 6:31 p.m. ET: 'This Decision In No Way Exonerates' Woodfox
Caldwell issued the following statement:
"While we are still reviewing the 5th Circuit's opinion to determine the appropriate action, the important thing to note is that this decision in no way exonerates Albert Woodfox in the brutal 1972 murder of Angola Correctional Officer Brent Miller.
"The Appeals Court decision focused on a technicality with the grand jury selection process from as far back as 30 years ago. No court decision, including this one, has ever made a finding which disputes the fact that Albert Woodfox murdered Brent Miller at Angola in 1972. Those facts will always remain true.
"We respectfully disagree with the Court's ruling, and remain committed to seeing that the trial jury's judgment finding Albert Woodfox guilty of murdering Officer Brent Miller is upheld."