Albert Woodfox, the last locked-up member of the Angola 3, pleaded no contest to manslaughter in the 1972 killing of a prison guard and walked out of jail Friday, his birthday, ending a long incarceration that became an international cause because of his decades spent in solitary confinement.
Appearing in a St. Francisville courtroom in shackles and prison garb, Woodfox entered his plea to the 1972 stabbing death of 23-year-old Brent Miller, as well an aggravated burglary count Friday morning. He received a nearly 43-year sentence for the crimes, matching up with the time he’s already served since his initial murder conviction in 1973, though he’d been in prison on an armed robbery charge since the late 1960s.
By the early afternoon, the 69-year-old emerged in civilian clothes from the West Feliciana Parish jail and raised his fist in salute to cheering onlookers before quickly climbing into his brother’s electric blue Mustang.
Woodfox, who was facing his third trial for the killing, had most recently been held at the jail, though he spent most of his decades in prison at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
When asked how he feels, Woodfox said, “I really haven’t decided yet.”
Headed to his hometown of New Orleans, Woodfox said he plans on “saying goodbye” to his deceased mother.
“I wasn’t allowed to go to her funeral when I was at Angola, and my sister as well,” he said.
Miller’s relatives said they felt betrayed, adding they did not cooperate in the plea decision and had not personally talked it over with Attorney General Jeff Landry, who took office last month and whose staff has been handling the case. Instead, they were told about it by other members of that office, they said.
“I don’t feel the Miller family had any choice in it,” said Wanda Callender, the guard’s younger sister. “We feel this was slammed in our face.”
In court Friday, one of the slain guard’s brothers, Stan Miller, stood before 20th Judicial District Judge William Carmichael and said, “A piece of our hearts has been jerked out of our bodies.”
Facing Woodfox, who did not meet his eye, Miller said his brother Brent, a drummer, “set the pace for our family,” adding that,” the family will always be heartbroken.”
In a statement, Landry thanked the Miller family and said “their support has been instrumental in today’s very difficult decision.”
Landry’s position marked a shift from his predecessor Buddy Caldwell, who strongly supported trying Woodfox a third time in the killing even though most of the witnesses are dead.
John Sinquefield, senior counsel at the Attorney General’s Office, who prosecuted Woodfox in both murder trials, said he informed Miller’s family of the plea arrangement last week and felt they understood.
“Although they might not agree, I believe what was done today was in their best interests, too,” he said.
Woodfox was convicted of second-degree murder twice in Miller’s slaying, once in 1973 and again in 1998, but judges identified problems with the way the grand juries that indicted him were selected, overturning the convictions.
Woodfox had always declared his innocence in the slaying of Miller, a prison guard stabbed 32 times with a knife and a lawnmower blade. His additional plea Friday to aggravated burglary refers to claims he broke into an Angola dormitory in order to commit the killing.
A no-contest plea has the same effect as a guilty plea.
A former Black Panther activist at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Woodfox and a co-defendant in the killing, Herman Wallace, maintained they were blamed for the death because they had agitated for better conditions at Angola during one of its bloodiest periods.
Asked what he would do if he could go back to the day of Brent Miller’s killing, Woodfox said on Friday, “When (there are) forces beyond your control, there’s not a lot you can do. Angola was a very horrible place at the time, and everybody was just fighting to survive day to day.”
Wallace, who was convicted with Woodfox in Miller’s death, died in 2013, just days after he was freed by a judge to receive treatment for his terminal liver cancer. He, too, had been granted a new trial.
Woodfox, Wallace and Robert King Wilkerson, now known as Robert King, became known as the Angola 3 because of their long stays in solitary confinement, which attracted the notice of groups like Amnesty International. Woodfox was the longest-held prisoner in solitary in U.S. history, his supporters said. The trio from New Orleans were all Black Panthers and argued they were kept in solitary because of their political beliefs and activism, not any danger they might have posed to the general prison population.
The solitary tier — called “closed cell restriction” by Louisiana prison officials — keeps prisoners in 9-by-6-foot cells where they are held for 23 hours a day.
Former longtime Angola Warden Burl Cain had always defended the conditions, saying it was unfair to categorize it as “solitary” because the cells allowed inmates to communicate with each other, watch television and receive amenities like library books.
King was found guilty of killing another prisoner in 1973 but was set free in 2001 after the conviction was reversed.
Standing among Woodfox’s entourage Friday, King said he was “elated this is finally over for Albert.”
Until Friday’s plea deal, perhaps the most stunning turn in recent years in Woodfox’s case came last summer when U.S. District Court Judge James Brady ordered Woodfox to be released and banned then-Attorney General Caldwell from retrying him for the crime.
But the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Brady, saying a third trial could go forward.
Defense attorneys had been skeptical about a new trial, noting that all of the key witnesses are now dead. Even during the last retrial in 1998, one of those witnesses, Hezekiah Brown, was already dead, and his testimony had to be read into the record.
Brown’s eyewitness testimony has been particularly divisive, with defense attorneys noting he received special favors at Angola after the original trial, from cigarettes to a television set. In the 1980s, then-Gov. Edwin Edwards commuted Brown’s life sentence for rape.
Sinquefield, of the Attorney General’s Office, acknowledged Friday that his office faced a challenge in trying a case with dead witnesses.
“I fully believe that what happened today was in the best interest of the citizens of the state of Louisiana. It was in the best interest of justice,” he said.
George Kendall, one of Woodfox’s attorneys, said his client “served one of the harshest sentences for years.”
Kendall added that Woodfox’s frail health and ailments such as hepatitis C were also factors in deciding to accept the plea, which “brings much needed closure.”