Opening the possibility a high-profile inmate could be convicted a third time for the same murder, a federal appeals court ruled Monday the state may retry Albert Woodfox, the last “Angola 3” member still incarcerated, who was ordered freed by a lower court judge in June.
“The district court abused its discretion,” wrote Judge Carolyn King in a 2-1 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, referring to U.S. Middle District Court Judge James J. Brady’s bold move over the summer to not only release Woodfox but also prohibit the inmate from being retried. King was joined by Judge Priscilla Owen.
Monday’s announcement came as a blow to Woodfox and his legal team, which had argued the inmate would not have access to a fair trial since the state’s key witnesses are dead.
Woodfox was convicted once in 1973 and again in 1998 in the killing of corrections Officer Brent Miller at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Miller was found stabbed to death in the prison in 1972.
Woodfox’s first conviction was overturned because he had ineffective counsel. The second time, Woodfox, who is black, demonstrated among other factors that black jurors were underrepresented in the grand jury, given their share of the overall population.
Judge James L. Dennis, in his dissent of King’s opinion, wrote, “If ever a case justifiably could be considered to present ‘exceptional circumstances’ barring reprosecution, this is that case.” Dennis cited Woodfox’s age of 68, failing health and imprisonment in solitary confinement on two unconstitutional convictions.
But King argued Woodfox’s claims about his current physical condition were irrelevant to his case and that the absence of living witnesses is better addressed by a state court.
King wrote, “This case … does not present a constitutional defect that cannot be cured at retrial.”
George Kendall, one of Woodfox’s attorneys, said in a statement: “We are extremely disappointed in the reversal of the district court opinion barring any further trial of Albert Woodfox. As the dissent points out, these truly are extraordinary circumstances and the State of Louisiana, who continues to hold Mr. Woodfox in solitary confinement, can no longer provide a fair trial.”
Woodfox was never released after Brady’s order due to a stay on that decision. Known as the Angola 3 for their long stays in solitary confinement, the group’s other members are Herman Wallace and Robert King. Wallace, who was also convicted in Miller’s murder, died in 2013. King, who was sentenced to Angola in a different murder, was released in 2001.
Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for the attorney general, said pre-trial motions are already being made in the state’s case against Woodfox.
“This opinion clears the way for that retrial,” he said.
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.