Freedom was within reach for Louisiana political prisoner Albert Woodfox, the last imprisoned member of the “Angola Three.” But his much-anticipated release didn’t happen. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 on Nov. 9 that Woodfox must remain in custody and that the state of Louisiana could try him for a third time, despite a federal court’s ruling prohibiting a retrial.
This cruel legal maneuvering shows the entrenched racism and unfairness in the criminal justice system. State officials are hell-bent on stopping Woodfox’s release and on continuing his 43-year imprisonment in solitary confinement.
The appeals court overturned a June 8 decision by U.S. District Judge James Brady that had ordered Woodfox’s immediate release and prohibited the state from retrying him for the 1972 killing of a prison guard. Brady had asserted that it would not be a fair trial: Key witnesses had died, there was no physical evidence linking Woodfox to the death, and there was racial discrimination in the jury selection. Woodfox has steadfastly maintained his innocence.
This latest decision by the appeals court was not unanimous. One of the three judges, James L. Dennis, strongly agreed with Brady. Excerpts from his dissent, published at the blog site of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, state: “If ever a case justifiably could be considered to present ‘exceptional circumstances’ barring reprosecution, this is that case.
“For more than four decades, Albert Woodfox has been solitarily confined to a nine-by-six foot cell for 23 hours a day,” says Dennis, who adds that during the hour Woodfox is allowed outside his cell, he must remain in solitude. “[He] is a model prisoner, now 68 years old, and in frail health, suffering from an onslaught of life-shortening diseases. The State has twice tried and twice failed to obtain a constitutionally valid conviction of Woodfox. For the vast majority of his life, Woodfox has spent nearly every waking hour in a cramped cell in crushing solitude without a valid conviction.”
Today, Woodfox is the longest-held U.S. prisoner in solitary confinement, a punishment considered torture by civil liberties and international human rights organizations.
‘Angola Three’ fought injustice in prison
Woodfox, Herman Wallace and Robert King became known as the “Angola Three,” all internationally known African-American political prisoners who spent decades in solitary confinement. Workers World has actively supported their fight for freedom and justice.
This newspaper said on June 8, 2012, that “Woodfox’s case began 40 years ago, deep in rural, southern Louisiana, when he and two other young Black men, Herman Wallace and Robert King, were silenced for exposing racial segregation, systemic corruption and horrific abuse in the biggest prison in the U.S. at that time, an 18,000-acre former slave plantation called Angola.”
Prisoners organized hunger strikes, work stoppages and political education classes, even forming a Black Panther Party chapter. They sought investigations into unconstitutional and inhumane practices. After a prison guard was killed in a 1972 rebellion, officials framed the three activists and threw them into solitary confinement.
King was released in 2001. After 41 years in solitary, Wallace was let out on Oct. 1, 2013, but died of cancer three days later. Even as Wallace was dying, prison officials were trying to re-imprison him.
The Angola 3 News blog reports that Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the U.S., and that three-fourths of Angola’s more than 5,000 prisoners are African American. Due to harsh sentencing laws, 97 percent will die there. Louisiana officials want the same fate for Woodfox.
Albert Woodfox is determined to keep fighting until he gets justice. See the Angola 3 News blog for updates and how to send letters of support to this courageous brother.