Albert Woodfox's journey to the East Courtroom of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals began 40 years ago, when he was convicted of armed robbery at age 21 and sentenced to 50 years of hard labor. After being transferred from New Orleans to Angola in 1971, Woodfox met Herman Wallace and Robert King.
In the early 1970s, Angola—which spans an area the size of Manhattan and is 30 miles from the nearest town—was a lawless, dangerous hellhole. The all-white corrections officers, who were called "freemen," lived with their families in their own community on the prison grounds, with inmate-servants they called "house boys." There were just 300 freemen to control an inmate population of more than 3,000—but they were backed by hundreds of so-called "trustees," supposedly trustworthy convict guards, who were known to abuse other prisoners. In his just-published autobiography, From the Bottom of the Heap, Robert King, who was released in 2001 after proving that he'd been wrongfully convicted of the murder of a fellow Angola inmate, says prison guards stripped prisoners, shaved their heads, and made them run a gauntlet of bats and clubs; incoming prisoners, known as "fresh fishes," were sold as sex slaves. According to records kept by the prison's famous newspaper, The Angolite, there were 82 stabbings in 1971, 52 in 1972, and 137 in 1973. (The paper's longtime editor, Wilbert Rideau, won the prestigious George Polk Award for his journalism while still in prison.)
In his book, King describes the tinderbox atmosphere at Angola when he arrived in 1971. That August, prisoners had organized a hunger strike to demand an end to the inmate-guard system, sexual enslavement, racial segregation, and 16-hour workdays. King sensed a mood of defiance among the prisoners and learned that Wallace and Woodfox were "teaching unity amongst the inmates, establishing the only recognized prison chapter of the Black Panther party in the nation." He joined Wallace and Woodfox in organizing the prison population to advocate for better living conditions.
It was in this volatile environment that Brent Miller, a 23-year-old corrections officer born and raised in Angola's staff community, was stabbed to death in a prison dormitory on the morning of April 17, 1972. About 200 prisoners—every one of them black—were rounded up and interrogated. Billy Wayne Sinclair, a white inmate who was on Angola's death row at the time (he was eventually freed), later told NPR: "You heard hollering and screaming and the bodies being slammed against the walls. Upstairs you could smell tear-gas bombs…We heard the beatings that were going on for weeks after that." Two days after the murder, an elderly prisoner named Hezekiah Brown came forward, reportedly telling investigators that he had witnessed the stabbing being carried out by Woodfox and Wallace, along with two other inmates. Based on his statements, the local sheriff filed charges against the men he had named.
Brown was the state's key witness against Woodfox in his 1973 trial. A magistrate judge who reviewed Woodfox's case wrote last summer that Brown's testimony was "so critical to [the prosecution's] case that without it there would probably be no case." After a federal court overturned Woodfox's conviction, he was given another trial in 1998, where Brown's account again figured heavily. At that point, Brown had been dead for two years, but his testimony—without defense objection—was read into the record. In his 1973 testimony, Brown admitted that he had at first said he was not in the dormitory when the murder happened, but then decided to tell "the truth." According to Brown, the truth was that on the morning of the murder Miller stopped by his bed for coffee, as he often did, and while he was sitting on Brown's bed, the four men came into the dorm and began stabbing him. (NPR, which did a three-part series on the case last year, interviewed a former Angola inmate who said he was with Woodfox in the prison mess at the time of the murder.)
According to evidence presented at Woodfox's 1998 trial, Brown was rewarded for his testimony in numerous ways: He was moved to a minimum-security area, where he lived in a house, luxurious by prison standards, and was provided with a carton of cigarettes a week. And a month after the 1973 trial, then-warden Murray Henderson began writing letters to state officials seeking a pardon for Brown, which cited his testimony against Miller's alleged murderers. During Woodfox's 1998 retrial, Henderson acknowledged that he promised Brown a pardon in exchange for his help "cracking the case." It took years, but Brown, a serial rapist serving life without parole, was released in 1986.
A second key witness was an inmate named Paul Fobb, who said he saw Woodfox leaving the dormitory after the murder. Fobb, who was legally blind, was also dead in 1998, and his earlier testimony, like Brown's, was read into the record without objection by Woodfox's lawyers. Fobb, who had been convicted of multiple rapes, was granted a medical furlough shortly after testifying, and left Angola.
A third prosecution witness, Joseph Richey, claimed that he saw Woodfox and others exiting the dorm, and on going inside saw Miller's body. At first he said he thought the inmates were going for help, but after a meeting at the attorney general's office, Richey changed his statement. He later confirmed being on Thorazine at the time of his testimony, and said he had told the attorney general's office as much. This information was not given to Woodfox's defense lawyers in either trial, nor were the juries made aware. Richey was subsequently transferred from Angola to a minimum-security state police barracks, and went on to work as a butler at the Louisiana governor's mansion. He was even provided the use of state police cars. While supposedly under the watch of the state police, Richey robbed three banks.
Yet another supposed witness, Chester Jackson, never testified at Woodfox's 1973 trial. Yet in 1998, his statements to investigators were mentioned by prison officials testifying for the prosecution, with only belated objections by the defense that this was hearsay evidence.
Then there was the physical evidence: a homemade knife that couldn't be linked to any of the accused; a bloody fingerprint that likewise matched none of the men Brown had implicated; and flecks of human blood on Woodfox's shirt (which he denies he was wearing that day). The bloodstained shirt was lost before the 1998 trial—and before it could be tested for DNA.
In 1973, Woodfox was convicted of Miller's murder in a matter of hours by an all-white jury. Wallace was convicted just as quickly in a separate trial. It took more than two decades of appeals, but Woodfox finally won a new trial on the basis of "ineffective assistance of counsel"—poor lawyering. Yet the 1998 trial not only failed to reveal earlier miscarriages of justice, but also introduced one of its own: One member of the grand jury that reindicted Woodfox was Anne Butler, ex-wife of former Angola warden Murray Henderson, who had led the investigation of the murder in 1973. She was kept on the jury even after revealing her identity to the district attorney, and despite the fact that she had written about Miller's murder—and her belief that Woodfox and Wallace were guilty—in the 1992 book she coauthored with Henderson, Dying to Tell, which she reportedly passed around for other jurors to read.