MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. 36 years, it's the longest time a prisoner has ever served in solitary confinement in modern American history. This week, we've been exploring how that became the fate of two men. They were convicted of killing a prison guard in 1972. But there are simmering questions about their guilt. NPR's Laura Sullivan has our final story from Louisiana's Angola prison.
LAURA SULLIVAN: Angola is called The Farm. On one edge of its vast acres of corn and cotton are isolation cells, the cells where Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox spent the past 36 years. On the other side high on a hill is a far more comfortable place. It's called the dog pen.
Mr. RANDOLPH MATTHEWS (Inmate, Angola Prison): This is the place to be. I mean, look around. I mean, you know, there's no fences. We live in a house. You have perks. If you didn't know you were in prison, just stand up and look around here. You never you were.
SULLIVAN: Inmate Randolph Matthews looks after the bloodhounds. It's taken him almost two decades to work his way to the dog pen. It took Hezekiah Brown only a few days. Brown was the state's main witness. He was sent to live here almost immediately after he told officials in 1972 that Woodfox and Wallace stabbed Brent Miller to death with a lawn mower blade.
Hezekiah repeatedly said he received no favors for testifying. But here, he lived. The warden later admitted he promised Brown a pardon. And it seems a little something else, too. Once a week for years, an officer would drive up here and give Hezekiah Brown a carton of cigarettes according to old prison records reviewed by NPR.
Mr. LLOYD HOYLE (Former Deputy Warden, Angola Prison in Louisiana): I'm his deputy warden, and that's the first time I ever heard that.
SULLIVAN: Lloyd Hoyle is now 81. He had no idea when Murray Henderson was supplying a carton a week.
Mr. HOYLE: If Murray would have told me, hey, I want you to give this inmate a cartoon of cigarettes every week, you know what I told him? I said, you can shove it. I'm not giving no convict no carton of cigarettes. (unintelligible). Forget it.
SULLIVAN: So it comes down to this. Did Hezekiah Brown, the man almost solely responsible for the conviction of two people, make the entire story up to help himself out? Louisiana's attorney general, James Buddy Caldwell, says absolutely not. Do you believe Hezekiah Brown?
Mr. JAMES BUDDY CALDWELL (Attorney General, Louisiana): Well, short answer to the question is yes. Two grand juries, two Louisiana juries, the Louisiana Supreme Court, the Louisiana appellate court system apparently believed Hezekiah Brown. That's what the system is about.
SULLIVAN: Caldwell says Brown put his own life at stake by coming forward. He says Brown was sent to the dog pen for his own safety.
Mr. CALDWELL: This is the murder of a prison guard at a very vulnerable time in the state of Louisiana.
SULLIVAN: Over the next 36 years confined in small concrete cells, Woodfox read every page of every law book at Angola. Wallace perfected the art of making flowers out of paper. It can take up a whole day just to make one bunch. Wallace has been appealing his case in state court. But a few months ago, Albert Woodfox's case was examined by a federal magistrate. Under that scrutiny, prison officials moved Woodfox and Wallace out of solitary and into a maximum-security wing. It is possible for NPR to interview Wallace and Woodfox by phone, but Angola officials say if they were to learn that such an interview took place, the men would be returned to solitary confinement.
Mr. HOYLE: I have no doubt that they're guilty. Period.
SULLIVAN: Former deputy warden, Lloyd Hoyle.
Mr. HOYLE: Believe me, they were in that yard, and they killed that boy. If it was your son or your husband, how would you feel?
SULLIVAN: So I asked Brent Miller's widow, Leontine Verrett, how does she feel? She pauses for a minute across her kitchen table.
Mrs. LEONTINE VERRETT: I feel very, very angry. All these years, I believed that these men did it. Why would the state lie? But I'm finding out, maybe these men did not do this.
SULLIVAN: One former inmate at the time, Billy Wayne Sinclair, thinks they didn't do it either. Sinclair says he believes another inmate named Irvin Breaux, whose nickname was Life, killed Brent Miller. Here's why.
Mr. BILLY WAYNE SINCLAIR (Former Inmate, Angola Prison): One day, Life told me that he's the one that killed Miller.
SULLIVAN: Sinclair and other inmates say Irvin Life Breaux was involved with inmates who firebombed a guard shack just one day before Brent Miller's murder. Buried in FBI reports is a note that a group calling themselves The VanGuard Army took credit for the bombing and promised more attacks. Sinclair says Breaux told him Miller walked in on him and other inmates plotting an attack. They panicked and the young officer.
Mr. SINCLAIR: I knew Life personally. He had no reason to lie to me. He had no reason to try to impress me.
SULLIVAN: Life, like so many others involved in this case, is dead. But one man is still alive. His name is Colonel Nyati Bolt. Bolt lives off the grid in another state. No phone, barely an address. It took four inmates and an old P.O. box to find him. Bolt is standing in a vegetable garden behind a small trailer. At first, he isn't sure he wants to talk about Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox. But after a while, he agrees to tell the story again, just like he did 36 years ago.
Mr. COLONEL NYATI BOLT (Former Inmate, Angola Prison): Albert was with me. We walked from the dormitory straight on up to the chow hall. ..TEXT: SULLIVAN: Bolt says he was with Albert Woodfox at the dining hall when Brent Miller was murdered, and he told that to prison officials. The response, a transfer to CCR, solitary confinement.
Mr. BOLT: They said, we're transferring you to CCR. I said, for what? He said, didn't you have something to do with this stuff down here? I said, you got to be out of your mind. Next thing I knew, I never saw daylight since.
SULLIVAN: For the next 20 years, he was kept in isolation in a windowless cell. He testified at Woodfox's trial, which only seemed to seal his fate. But he never changed his story. In 1992, Bolt was released. By the time Woodfox's second trial came around, he disappeared. On his arms, you can see old green tattoos as he leans over his garden.
Mr. BOLT: These tomatoes haven't really started yet, you know.
SULLIVAN: He said it's hard for him to talk about all those years he spent alone. But he says he wouldn't do anything differently if he could do it over.
Mr. BOLT: When I made my statement, I made it in honest. I made it out of my heart. And they can say whatever they want to say, you know, because that's the way it went. And I can't cut it any other way than that.
SULLIVAN: Whether you believe Colonel Bolt or Billy Wayne Sinclair or Hezekiah Brown, there is one more piece of evidence. Next to Miller's body was a single bloody fingerprint. It doesn't match Woodfox, Wallace, the officers or the men who moved the body. But deep in a drawer in an office at Angola, there are identification cards bearing the fingerprints of every inmate housed at the prison in 1972. Louisiana's attorney general Buddy Caldwell says the state will never test the print.
Mr. CALDWELL: A fingerprint can come from anywhere. We're not going to be fooled by that.
SULLIVAN: Caldwell says he will fight this case all the way to the Supreme Court. And he may have to. A judge recently overturned Woodfox's conviction, saying he had ineffective lawyers. Caldwell is appealing. But in a week or two, a judge could grant Woodfox bail, releasing him from prison for the first time in almost four decades.
As you leave Angola, you can see the dormitories, the officers in their guard shacks, the men bent over in the cotton fields, just as it looked 40 years ago and 100 years ago. There is an inscription near the last guard post. It's a Bible verse, Philippians 3:12. It says, we can't change the past. We can only press on to the future. But the past is as much a part of this place as it ever was. Laura Sullivan, NPR News.
SIEGEL: At our website, you can listen to all three of Laura's reports from Angola Prison. You'll find them at npr.org. You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.