ST. FRANCISVILLE — The anticipation of what would have been a historic day for Albert Woodfox ended just after noon Friday as the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the last jailed Angola 3 inmate to remain behind bars pending a review of the murder case responsible for his more than four-decade incarceration.
The past week’s back and forth between judges is just the most recent chapter in a case that has divided the courts since the 1970s as convictions have been handed down, then overturned and retried.
Even the siblings and the widow of the victim can’t agree on what to do with Woodfox.
Several family members of slain Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola guard Brent Miller — whom Woodfox is accused of killing in 1972 — along with several journalists and prison personnel had gathered Friday outside the West Feliciana Parish Detention Center, where Woodfox is being held.
Miller’s sister Wanda Callender said, “Praise God,” after hearing of the decision by a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit to keep Woodfox in jail while the court considers whether he can be retried.
“It’s been a long time coming, and we’re very happy,” said Miller’s brother, Stan Miller.
Earlier this week, U.S. District Court Judge James Brady, who had overturned Woodfox’s 1998 conviction in the murder of Brent Miller, ordered the inmate released and prohibited the state from retrying him for the crime. The next day, the 5th Circuit intervened and temporarily blocked the release of Woodfox, a state prisoner who has risen to national renown as the prisoner serving the longest time in solitary confinement in the United States.
Woodfox is not being held in solitary now, though he remains in his own cell for his safety, said West Feliciana Sheriff Austin Daniel, and he has access to common areas and privileges such as TV, the telephone and the yard.
The final ruling, released not long before a 1 p.m. deadline the court had set for itself, sets the stage for the appellate judges to consider Brady’s decision in full. That moves the focus to Brady’s ruling that Woodfox could not be fairly retried for a third time in Miller’s slaying.
The 10-page decision, written by Judge Jerry Smith, notes that “no showing has been made that any state retrial (or any appeal) will be improperly handled.” Smith said further proceedings would be expedited.
The state Attorney General’s Office, which is prosecuting the case, applauded the ruling.
“We are pleased with the court’s decision that this inmate should remain in custody as the state pursues its appeal,” spokesman Aaron Sadler said in a statement. “It has always been the state’s priority to ensure justice for the brutal slaying of Brent Miller and to hold accountable this murderer who has an extensive history of violent crimes.”
In their own statement, Woodfox’s attorneys said they hope the 5th Circuit will eventually agree with Brady that the case can’t be fairly brought before another jury.
“This is the rare, exceptional instance in which it is appropriate for the federal court to step in and prevent the state from attempting to mount an unfair trial,” attorneys George Kendall and Carine Williams said. “As the district court stated, a third trial would be unfair at best. With all key witnesses now deceased, there is no longer a possibility of a reliable new trial. The fact that two previous convictions have been reversed demonstrates the weakness of the state’s case, even when those witnesses were living.”
Brent Miller’s widow, Teenie Rogers, who was 17 when her 23-year-old husband was stabbed to death, has spoken publicly about her view that the state did not prove Woodfox guilty of her late husband’s murder. She came to her belief after reviewing evidence brought to her by an investigator working on the Angola 3 case.
“You know who I blame? I blame the state,” first for putting Brent Miller to work in a jail where he was killed by inmates, and then by bungling the case in court, she said.
Several pieces of evidence give Rogers pause — a shoe found at the scene and a bloody fingerprint among them.
“Once you look at the evidence, it’s overwhelming. How can that be?” she said. “Had I been a juror — I think there’s a lot of reasonable doubt.”
That means the real killer could have escaped prosecution. Rogers said she thinks about Miller every day and is still pained not to have answers.
“I just want closure. It’s just too hard. … 43 years later, I’m still going through this. I just want it to be over.”
She seeks an end to the court cases and calls from reporters and bad blood with her former in-laws. It would have been best if the state had just released Woodfox on Friday, she said.
“I just feel in my heart that — it’s 43 years — (Brent Miller) is not coming back. … You’ve got to put these things to rest,” she said.
Callender was critical of Rogers, saying she had been married to Brent Miller for only two months when he was killed and that “(Rogers) is not part of our family and never has been.”
Brent Miller and Rogers had dated for a few years before their wedding and were married for about 2 1/2 months at the time of his slaying, Rogers said.
As Brent Miller’s siblings see it, Woodfox has had not one but two fair trials and deserves to stay in jail for the rest of his life.
“He has been convicted several times by a jury,” Callender said.
“There were eyewitnesses. There were two court cases,” she said.
Brent Miller was stabbed some 32 times with a knife and a lawnmower blade.
Woodfox has maintained he is not guilty of stabbing Miller, saying he and co-defendant Herman Wallace were targeted for the 1972 killing by Angola leadership because they had been Black Panther activists at the prison and agitated for better conditions. While he was convicted twice, once in 1973 and again in 1998, those convictions were overturned because of the way the grand juries that indicted Woodfox were selected.
The longtime prisoner’s attorneys have argued that the witnesses against Woodfox were always problematic but particularly so now that most of them are dead. Even during the 1998 trial, a key inmate witness, Hezekiah Brown, who identified Woodfox as participating in Miller’s stabbing, was already deceased. Brown’s testimony was read into the record.
During that trial, defense attorneys tried to cast doubt on the veracity of the inmate testimony, saying both that they received special favors for naming Miller’s alleged killers and could also have been coerced by a former warden.
In ruling that the state Attorney General’s Office could not retry Woodfox for a third time, Brady agreed that one troubling factor is the lack of witnesses who are still alive. He also cited the inmate’s ill health and his exceptionally long stint in solitary confinement.
Over the years, Woodfox became known as one of the Angola 3, inmates who had spent an exceptionally long time in a solitary tier at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The others were Wallace and Robert King Wilkerson, who like the other two, had been a Black Panther. Wilkerson, now known as Robert King, was released years ago. Wallace died in 2013, days after he was released.
Dane Ciolino, a law professor at Loyola University’s College of Law, said the 5th Circuit’s Friday decision “is outright saying in this document that they believe that (Brady) got the release wrong,” referring to Brady’s stricture against a new trial for Woodfox.
“The whole thing is highly unusual,” Ciolino said, from Brady’s “extraordinary” ruling to the 5th Circuit’s speed in weighing in on the case.
As for Woodfox’s supporters, Friday marked a moment of “cautious optimism” dampened by a disappointing but not entirely unpredictable ruling, said Norris Henderson, a former Angola inmate of 27 years who has advocated on Woodfox’s behalf.
“I figured at some point there would be some finality, and right now, it seems like there’s no finality,” he said.