Albert Woodfox, the high-profile accused murderer from New Orleans who’s fueled a national debate over solitary confinement, is taking his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
One of Woodfox’s attorneys, George Kendall, said Tuesday he plans to file a request to the nation’s high court to hear the case, nearly a month after a federal appeals court ruled the inmate can be tried a third time in the slaying of a prison guard. Woodfox’s request will join the 10,000 petitions the Supreme Court receives each year, some 80 of which are heard.
Also Tuesday, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals filed the necessary paperwork to finalize its Nov. 9 decision that overturned a lower court judge’s sweeping ruling in June that sought to free Woodfox and bar him from being retried.
Woodfox, 68, was twice convicted in the 1972 stabbing death of Brent Miller, a guard at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Both convictions, in 1973 and 1998, were thrown out, first due to Woodfox’s ineffective counsel and the next time, because of racial disparities in the grand jury.
Woodfox has become a lightning rod in the controversy surrounding solitary confinement, a practice opponents say is a form of unconstitutional imprisonment generally defined as being held alone in a cell for at least 23 hours a day. Having served four decades, Woodfox is believed to be the longest-jailed inmate in solitary in the U.S.
State officials have previously challenged the description of Woodfox’s imprisonment as solitary confinement, citing his access to television and ability to converse with other inmates despite only being allowed to leave his cell one hour a day.
Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for State Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell, who is prosecuting Woodfox, said Tuesday he can’t discuss the issue of solitary confinement because it’s the subject of ongoing litigation.
In Woodfox’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, attorneys are expected to argue that U.S. Middle District Court Judge James J. Brady had appropriate authority when he ruled in June that the inmate’s situation was so exceptional that a fair trial would be impossible.
The unusual elements to Woodfox’s case include his advanced age, faltering health, and the fact that many of the witnesses to the killing for which he’s accused are dead, Brady found.
“The American trial assumes that a certain number of critical witnesses are going to show up at the courthouse, raise their right hands, testify and be subject to cross examination. There’s no dispute anymore. That can’t happen in this case,” Kendall said.
“The central, important role the jury plays is to look at the witnesses ... and say, ‘Who do we believe and who do we not believe?’ ” he said, adding that critical testimony should not be delivered by actors reading a script in court.
Sadler said the state agrees with the 5th Circuit’s ruling last month, which found the problem of dead witnesses would be best addressed at retrial by a state court.
“This case,” wrote 5th Circuit Judge Carolyn King in the 2-1 decision with Judge Priscilla Owen, “does not present a constitutional defect that cannot be cured at retrial.”
Fifth Circuit Judge James L. Dennis dissented, aligning himself with Brady.
Woodfox is the last remaining member of the “Angola 3,” a group so named for the members’ long terms in what they’ve argued is solitary confinement.
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.