With a Baton Rouge federal judge raising the possibility of barring another retrial of Albert Woodfox in the 1972 slaying of a Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola guard, state prosecutors and Woodfox’s attorneys have weighed in on whether the 68-year-old “Angola 3” member should face a third trial in the decades-old case.
Woodfox’s unanimous 1973 and 1998 murder convictions in the stabbing death of Brent Miller were overturned, the latter in 2013 by U.S. District Judge James Brady, because of grand jury issues.
“Woodfox has now had two convictions vacated on grounds that have nothing to do with the actual fairness of either of his two trials and that do not even suggest that he did not murder Brent Miller,” Louisiana Attorney General’s Office lawyers argue in federal court documents filed April 10 for Brady to consider.
“The public interest in reprosecuting Woodfox ... to definitively obtain a constitutionally valid conviction and justice for Brent Miller is exceedingly strong,” the state’s attorneys contend.
But lawyers representing Woodfox say subjecting him to a third prosecution “would work a grievous injustice.”
They argue that at least seven of the 15 state witnesses who testified at the second trial are dead and at least six of the 13 witnesses called in Woodfox’s defense have passed away.
“Because these witnesses are gone ... there is simply no way for a jury to adjudicate this case on a clean slate,” Woodfox’s attorneys claim in court documents filed March 30.
Not so, the state says, adding that the state carries the burden of proof.
“Although Woodfox makes much of the unavailability of witnesses who have died in the years since his first trial,” the state’s attorneys counter, “he ignores the Supreme Court’s specific instructions that a state may reindict and retry a defendant whose conviction is vacated based on grand jury discrimination, and is ‘free to use all the proof it introduced to obtain the conviction in the first trial.’ ”
Woodfox’s attorneys say it is “unfathomable” to imagine how an objectively reasonable juror chosen today could possibly evaluate the integrity of the state’s case or the credibility of the competing narratives between the state’s case and Woodfox’s defense.
“While the State would likely seek to have transcripts read into the record, given the magnitude of the unavailable witnesses at this stage, such efforts would be constitutionally intolerable,” his attorneys argue.
Woodfox was indicted Feb. 12 for a third time in the death of Miller, a 23-year-old prison guard. Attorneys for Woodfox and the state appeared March 2 before Brady to argue over whether Woodfox should be released on bail while waiting for a third trial.
Then, on March 19, Brady sent out an order seeking written arguments “on the possibility of this Court issuing a writ barring retrial.” In throwing out Woodfox’s second murder conviction in 2013, Brady found racial discrimination in the grand jury foreman selection process.
The state’s attorneys insist there is “no conceivable basis” for Brady to prohibit Woodfox’s retrial, saying the judge “cannot attempt to divine the fairness or unfairness of a state prosecution that has not yet taken place.”
“Woodfox’s trials were not tainted by the improper exclusion of critically important evidence. Rather, Woodfox simply disagrees with the jurors’ weighing of the evidence that was presented,” the state’s lawyers maintain.
Woodfox’s defense team argues his age and poor health — high blood pressure, diabetes, heart and kidney disease, and a liver ailment — are factors that Brady should consider in determining whether to forbid a third trial. Woodfox’s attorneys also proclaim his innocence and allege he was targeted for prosecution in retaliation for his efforts to reform prison conditions at the Angola penitentiary.
Those references to Woodfox’s age and health drew a sharp response from the state, which said such considerations are “quite simply irrelevant.”
“Old age and poor health cannot serve as defenses to an initial prosecution, and there is no logical reason why they would justify barring reprosecution of a murderer,” the state’s attorneys replied.
Those lawyers also attacked Woodfox’s contention that he is innocent.
“Woodfox’s claims of ‘actual innocence’ ring hollow when he was convicted twice by a unanimous jury in constitutionally valid proceedings,” they argue. “If Woodfox has such strong evidence of actual innocence, he should have no problem establishing reasonable doubt to a jury.”
Woodfox’s attorneys insist he should not be required to sit before another trial jury.
“As a result of the lapse of over four decades since the underlying offense, the harm flowing from discrimination in Woodfox’s 1992 grand jury can no longer be remedied by a new trial,” they argue.
Woodfox and former Angola inmates Herman Wallace and Robert King are referred to as the “Angola 3” because of their lengthy stretches in solitary confinement at the prison.
Woodfox and Wallace, who were serving 50-year terms for armed robbery when Miller was killed, received life sentences in that slaying.
Wallace was convicted with Woodfox in the murder of Miller but died in October 2013 only days after a judge set him free and granted him a new trial. King was found guilty of killing a fellow inmate in 1973 and released in 2001 after the conviction was reversed.
* This article was edited after publication to correct the year of Woodfox’s second trial.