The lament that some criminal got off on a “legal technicality” is naturally a common one, for we have a bunch of legal technicalities to choose from in this country.
We even have an official list of them for crafty defense attorneys to exploit. It’s at the back of the U.S. Constitution.
It is true that the Bill of Rights, as expanded by the 14th Amendment, is regarded all over the world as the crowning glory of American polity, but that doesn’t make it any less irritating for such legal luminaries as Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell.
Caldwell’s latest displeasure is with the federal appeals court in New Orleans, which has overturned the conviction of Albert Woodfox for the 1972 murder of Angola prison guard Brent Miller.
“The Appeals Court decision focused on a technicality with the grand jury selection process,” Caldwell said. “No court decision, including this one, has ever made a finding which disputes the fact that Albert Woodfox murdered Brent Miller.” Woodfox remains in solitary, where he has spent most of the last four decades, and Caldwell is “committed” to keeping him there, so a retrial is presumably planned.
Caldwell’s technicality is what the court, in granting Woodfox’s “important constitutional challenge,” described as a principle upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court “for well over a century.” Whether Woodfox and Herman Wallace, both convicted of Miller’s murder in separate trials, were really guilty hardly anyone now alive can be sure, but we do know that neither ever received a fair trial.
Their cases have earned the state universal obloquy, notably last year when Wallace, stricken with cancer, had his conviction overturned and federal Judge Brian Jackson ordered his release. With an ambulance waiting at the prison gates, state officials refused to comply until Jackson threatened to hold them in contempt. Wallace, who had also endured unspeakable conditions in solitary confinement since his conviction, was dead three days later.
Now Louisiana is evidently determined to prove just as mindlessly cruel in Woodfox’s case. Another trial could probably never yield a conviction so long after the event in any case, but the state was unable to produce fingerprints, blood stains or other physical evidence to link Woodfox and Wallace to the murder in the first place. The witnesses against them were other inmates granted secret favors to testify, their inconsistencies unexposed by incompetent lawyers appointed for the defense.
It was not unusual for black defendants to get a raw deal in those days, but Woodfox and Wallace were particularly unlikely to receive a sympathetic hearing. Not only were they both doing time for armed robbery, but they were Black Panthers, causing considerable disruption at Angola by protesting the various inhumanities to which prisoners were subjected. Even Miller’s widow believes they were wrongfully convicted.
Woodfox’s first trial was such a travesty that it did not need the intervention of the federal courts to vacate the conviction. Woodfox prevailed on appeal at the state level, but a West Feliciana grand jury reindicted him in 1993 and he was found guilty again five years later.
The state was not so receptive to his challenges this time, but Woodfox received more encouragement when he turned to the feds. Judge James Brady overturned his conviction in 2008 on grounds of ineffective counsel, but the appeals court reversed in 2010, citing the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which imposed new limits on the power of federal judges to reverse state court verdicts. The act requires violation of a “clearly established federal law” or an “unreasonable determination of the facts” before a writ of habeas corpus may be granted.
That requirement was evidently met when Brady once again reversed Woodfox’s conviction last year, this time citing racial discrimination in seating the grand jury that indicted him. At the time a district judge would appoint a foreperson from the grand jury pool before the other members were picked. Between 1980 and 1993 the judge in Woodfox’s case, Wilson Ramshur, who is now dead, appointed 20 grand jury forepersons of whom only one was black — this in a district more or less evenly split between the races.
It is well established law, the court of appeals noted, that the “criminal conviction of an African-American cannot stand if it is based on an indictment of a grand jury from which African-Americans have been excluded on the basis of race.” They call it equal protection, if you want to get technical.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.