U.S. Middle District Court Judge James J. Brady on Monday ordered the release of Albert Woodfox, the last “Angola 3” member remaining behind bars after four decades of solitary confinement.
Brady also took the extraordinary step of barring another retrial for the 68-year-old inmate.
Woodfox was awaiting a third trial in the 1972 stabbing death of corrections officer Brent Miller at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Woodfox’s unanimous 1973 and 1998 murder convictions were overturned because of grand jury issues. Brady overturned the second murder conviction in 2013 because of racial discrimination in the grand jury foreman selection process.
Woodfox was indicted Feb. 12 for a third time in Miller’s death. Attorneys for Woodfox and the state appeared March 2 before Brady to argue over whether Woodfox should be released on bail while awaiting a third trial.
Aaron Sadler, communications director for the Louisiana Department of Justice, said with the release order, the court “would see it fit to free a twice-convicted murderer who is awaiting trial again for the brutal slaying” of Miller, a 23-year-old corrections officer.
“This order arbitrarily sets aside jury decisions and gives a free pass to a murderer based on faulty procedural issues,” Sadler said.
The Attorney General’s Office is seeking an emergency stay from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to ensure Woodfox “stays in prison and remains fully accountable for his actions,” Sadler said.
Brady gave at least five reasons why he issued the release order: Woodfox’s age and poor health, his limited ability to present a defense at the third trial because of unavailable witnesses, lack of confidence in the state to provide a fair trial, the prejudice of Woodfox’s 40 years in solitary confinement and the fact that he has been tried twice and “would otherwise face his third trial for a crime that occurred over 40 years ago.”
“Moreover, this is not a case where evidence of guilt is ‘overwhelming,’ ” Brady wrote in the order. “Having considered the parties’ arguments, the jurisprudence, and the factual and procedural history of this case, this court exercises its discretion in finding that there are exceptional circumstances, and the only just remedy is” to bar Woodfox’s retrial.
In an emailed statement, Woodfox’s attorneys George Kendall and Carine Williams said there is “nothing arbitrary” about the federal judge’s ruling and echoed Brady’s words that under the extraordinary conditions of this case, the only just remedy is to bar a third trial and release Woodfox.
“The federal court further recognizes that the state has now had two chances to secure a valid conviction against Mr. Woodfox and has been unable to do so,” the attorneys said. “Now, because the state’s key witnesses are deceased, and Mr. Woodfox’s alibi witnesses are also deceased, there is no practical way for there to be a third trial which comports with the standards of a fair, American trial.”
The attorneys said they are optimistic the state will comply with the court’s ruling and they look forward to Woodfox returning home to his family, getting needed medical attention and living the rest of his life in peace.
The Associated Press reported that Woodfox is in solitary confinement at West Feliciana Parish Prison in St. Francisville awaiting trial, and his lawyers were headed there Monday to seek his release.
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 story was edited after publication to correc the date of Woodfox’s second trial.