A federal court of appeals this week upheld the new trial ordered for Albert Woodfox, the “Angola 3” member who has spent decades in solitary confinement after multiple convictions for his alleged role in the 1972 stabbing death of a Louisiana prison guard.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did not weigh the evidence against Woodfox but instead agreed with U.S. District Judge James Brady that Woodfox’s 1993 indictment by a West Feliciana Parish grand jury — his second in the case — was tainted by racial discrimination in the grand jury foreperson selection process.
Still, Woodfox’s attorneys and Amnesty International heralded the ruling by the three-judge panel, saying the state should take it as an opportunity to set the prisoner free and walk away from an appeal or retrial. While the ruling centered on the grand jury issue, Woodfox has maintained his innocence, saying his prosecutions were based on dubious evidence.
Nick Trenticosta, one of his lawyers, said the state would have difficulty trying Woodfox for a third time in the killing of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola guard Brent Miller because some witnesses have died.
State Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said his office is still reviewing the appeals opinion. But he stressed that the decision “in no way exonerates Albert Woodfox in the brutal 1972 murder.”
“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,” Caldwell said in the prepared statement. “Those facts will always remain true.”
Amnesty International, the human rights organization, released its own statement. “The state should no longer impede justice but stand aside and allow this decision to stand,” said Tessa Murphy, USA campaigner at Amnesty International.
The Attorney General’s Office’s options include asking the 5th Circuit panel or the entire appeals court to reconsider the case. The office also could ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
Either way, Trenticosta said the panel’s decision puts the 67-year-old Woodfox closer to his ultimate goal.
“Our goal always has been to free Mr. Woodfox because he’s innocent,” he said. “Now we can move forward.”
Trenticosta said he has learned since the last trial that one of the state’s witnesses was a psychiatric patient who was on psychiatric medication at the time of the offense.
“That certainly calls into question if the man saw what he said he saw,” Trenticosta stated.
Woodfox, of New Orleans, remains in solitary confinement at Wade Correctional Center near Homer.
He is one of the three inmates dubbed the “Angola 3” by supporters, in part because of their long stretches in such confinement.
Herman Wallace, one of the three, was convicted with Woodfox of second-degree murder in the death of Miller, then a 23-year-old prison guard. Wallace died last fall only days after a judge freed him and granted him a new trial.
The other Angola 3 member, Robert King, was convicted of killing a fellow inmate in 1973 and released in 2001 after his conviction was reversed.
Woodfox and Wallace were serving 50-year sentences for armed robbery convictions when Miller was killed. They received life terms in that killing.
Like Wallace, Woodfox has always denied any involvement in Miller’s killing. Both said they were falsely implicated in the murder because of their political activism in prison as members of the Black Panther Party.
In his ruling last year, Brady noted that only five of the 27 grand jury forepersons judicially selected in West Feliciana Parish between 1980 and March 1993 were black; the other 22 were white. The judge said the state failed to convince him that “objective, race-neutral criteria” — such as education and employment — were used in the selection process.
In its 37-page decision Thursday, the 5th Circuit panel noted that the late state District Judge Wilson Ramshur selected the foreperson of the grand jury that indicted Woodfox in 1993 and said “there is almost no evidence that Judge Ramshur employed race-neutral criteria” in the selection.
“As far as we are able to discern, Judge Ramshur mostly selected people known to him without any systematic attempt to obtain information about qualifications,” Circuit Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote for the panel that included fellow Circuit Judges E. Grady Jolly and Leslie Southwick.
Higginbotham said the record reveals Ramshur “passed over equally qualified African-American candidates to appoint white forepersons” during his time on the 20th Judicial District Court.
Grand jury forepersons in Louisiana are now randomly selected, East Baton Rouge Parish First Assistant District Attorney Prem Burns said last year following Brady’s ruling.
Woodfox’s first conviction in Miller’s death was overturned after he challenged the 1972 grand jury indictment of himself, Wallace, and fellow Angola inmates Gilbert Montegut and Chester Jackson. Montegut was acquitted at trial. Jackson pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter and testified against his co-defendants. He died in prison in 1988.
Brady ruled in 2008 that Woodfox’s defense counsel in his 1998 retrial was ineffective, and he ordered the state to try Woodfox for a third time or drop the case. But the 5th Circuit in 2010 reversed that order, saying Brady erred, and sent the case back to him for a determination on the grand jury issue.