NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louisiana’s attorney general is insisting on a third trial for the last of the “Angola Three,” calling the prison activist who spent decades in solitary confinement after the killing of a guard in 1972 “the most dangerous person on the planet.”
A federal judge ruled this week that Albert Woodfox must be freed immediately, saying the state has never proved — and never will — that he was responsible for the stabbing death of Brent Miller 43 years ago.
So what exactly does the state have on this armed robber who organized a Black Panther Party chapter to challenge the brutal conditions inside the sprawling Louisiana State Penitentiary?
Woodfox’s long-simmering story has been the subject of documentaries, Peabody Award-winning journalism, United Nations human rights reviews and even a theatrical play. It’s a staggering tale of inconsistencies, witness recants, rigged jury pools, out-of-control prison violence, racial prejudice and political intrigue.
And none of it has brought justice to Miller’s widow, Teenie Rogers, who did her own investigating and says there’s no evidence that Woodfox is guilty.
“I think it’s time the state stop acting like there is any evidence that Albert Woodfox killed Brent,” Rogers said Thursday.
Her statement was issued by a team of advocates for Woodfox, who came within hours of freedom this week before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed his release while deciding whether to accept the state’s appeal.
“I hope the Appeals Court cares about the evidence and cares about justice,” Rogers wrote. “The judge has already said this is over. Let it be over. For all of us.”
Her sweetheart’s death the morning of April 17, 1972, a Monday, remains one of the most notorious events in the long bloody history of the prison farm at Angola, Louisiana, called “America’s worst” as far back as 1952 by Collier’s magazine.
Prison officials said Woodfox was the instigator, grabbing Miller from behind while others stabbed him. But key aspects of the crime have remained mysterious ever since his body was found in an empty prison bunkhouse.
Tensions had been unusually high at the prison that year. Woodfox and others had been encouraging inmates to refuse to work. The day before, inmates tossed a gasoline can at a small wooden guardhouse, lighting it on fire. That guard narrowly escaped with burned hair. Prison authorities blamed Woodfox for that attack as well.
Miller left for work that day feeling apprehensive, his widow recalled. He entered the Pine 1 dormitory — a scene of unruliness days before — to get a cup of coffee from the “trusty,” a serial sex offender named Hezekiah Brown — and was attacked with a lawnmower blade and a handmade prison knife called a shiv.
The Associated Press covered the crime that day, reporting that Deputy Warden Lloyd Hoyle said the killing happened while only a few inmates were in the dormitory, and most of the rest were eating breakfast in a dining hall.
“There was an abundance of physical evidence available at the crime scene in 1972, but not one piece of physical evidence incriminated Mr. Woodfox,” wrote U.S. District Judge James Brady. The case against Woodfox and other Black Panther organizers “was built largely on eyewitness testimony,” and many of those witnesses have died.
Particularly disturbing are lingering doubts about Brown, the state’s “star witness.” He gave conflicting testimony to detectives before fingering Woodfox, and was later discovered to have received “inducements” for his testimony, the judge said.
At the second trial, in 1998, former prison Warden C. Murray Henderson acknowledged that he had promised to help Brown get a pardon before his testimony — a promise ultimately fulfilled by Gov. Edwin Edwards in 1986. And Brown, who had been on death row, was given special privileges immediately after the killing: He was moved to the “dog pen,” a house where he had his own room and a TV, separated from the rest of the prison, where the bloodhounds were kept. He died a free man in 1996.
The judge said he’s also disturbed that a bloody crime scene fingerprint did not match Woodfox or any of the other men accused in Miller’s killing, and that other witnesses testified that Woodfox was not involved. One former inmate told National Public Radio as part of its award-winning investigation that Woodfox was sitting in the breakfast hall when Miller was killed.
Both of Woodfox’s convictions were overturned on appeal for reasons including juror misconduct and racial prejudice. The state says these problems were merely procedural, but the judge said Woodfox should be released in any case because of his age — he’s 68 now — and his poor health. It’s the only fair thing to do, the judge said, since he’s been in “solitary confinement for approximately forty years now, and yet today there is no valid conviction holding him in prison, let alone solitary confinement.”
Louisiana Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell — who has long denied that Woodfox or others were held in solitary confinement, said through a spokesman that Brady’s order amounts to giving Woodfox “a free pass” for murder.
For his part, Angola’s longtime warden, Burl Cain — a powerful figure in Louisiana’s politics and one who’s talked of running for governor — has said he’s kept Woodfox on “extended lockdown” to keep him from spreading “Black Pantherism” and fomenting racial strife among other inmates.
The Louisiana House of Representatives voted 65-18 Thursday to reject a resolution asking Caldwell to withdraw his appeal. Its sponsor, Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said Louisiana has already spent far too much money trying to make a conviction stick.
“To keep someone in solitary confinement for 40 years is absolutely unconscionable,” she said. “All the witnesses are dead. He cannot receive a fair trial.”
Rep. Kenny Havard, R-Jackson, who represents the district containing Angola, urged lawmakers to reject the resolution.
“So he killed a security guard and we want to let him out of prison?” he asked. “What would you tell the security guard’s family that he killed? What would you tell them?”
Rogers, the widow, has an answer already prepared: “Loving Brent doesn’t mean we have to ignore the truth and the evidence.”
Associated Press writers Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge and Rebecca Santana in New Orleans contributed to this report.
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.