Angola 3: 36 Years of Solitude
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36 Years of Solitude

Why is Bobby Jindal’s administration determined to keep Albert Woodfox in permanent lockdown?

| Mon Mar. 2, 2009 8:30 PM EST

Woodfox began working to secure himself a third trial almost immediately after his second. But a lifeline came to him via another member of the Angola 3, Robert King. Convicted of a separate prison murder and placed in solitary for decades, King ultimately won his release with the help of Chris Aberle, a former 5th Circuit staff attorney who had been assigned to represent him in his appeal. King was convinced that, like himself, Woodfox and Wallace were "victims of frame-up and racism," he said in a recent interview. He asked Aberle to help them as well, and the lawyer agreed. In 2006, Aberle filed a habeas corpus petition on Woodfox's behalf with the Federal District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana.

With Aberle and a team of new lawyers fighting for them, King speaking out on their behalf, and a growing support movement, it looked as if 2008 would be a turning point for Woodfox and Wallace. In March, they were moved for the first time in 35 years from solitary to a maximum-security dormitory with other prisoners. The move followed Rep. John Conyers' visit to Angola and was spurred by a civil lawsuit initiated by the ACLU and carried forward under the leadership of noted death penalty attorney George Kendall, who argued that the Angola 3's decades-long confinement in solitary violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. (The case is ongoing.)

Then, in June 2008, a federal magistrate judge named Christine Noland issued a 70-page report in response to Woodfox's habeas petition. The report recommended that Woodfox's 1998 conviction be overturned, based on the deficiencies in his defense counsel. It also pointed to the weakness of the state's case:

At the most, the Court sees a case supported largely by one eyewitness [Brown] of questionable credibility…two corroborating witnesses, Richey and Fobb, both of whom, according to other evidence submitted with Woodfox's petition, provided trial testimony which was materially different from their written statements given just after the murder, and one of whom's testimony (Fobb's) could have been discredited by expert evidence; and no physical evidence definitively linking Woodfox to the crime.
Because, in the Court's view, the State's case did not have "overwhelming" record support, confidence in the outcome is more susceptible to and is undermined by defense counsel's errors...and as a result, Woodfox is entitled to the habeas relief he seeks—that his conviction and life sentence for the second-degree murder of Miller be reversed and vacated.

A month later, in July 2008, federal district court Judge James Brady affirmed Noland's findings and issued a ruling overturning Woodfox's conviction. In November, he ordered Woodfox to be released on bail pending a new trial. "Mr. Woodfox today is not the Mr. Woodfox of 1973," Brady wrote in his ruling. "Today he is a frail, sickly, middle-aged man who has had an exemplary conduct record for over the last 20 years."

Buddy Caldwell, Louisiana's attorney general, would have none of it. He appealed Brady's decision, then moved swiftly to mount an emergency motion to block Woodfox's release. "We're…not going to let them get away with that kind of thing," Caldwell told the press. (Caldwell declined to comment for this story.)

Woodfox's release was contingent upon him finding a place to live. His niece, who lived in a gated community outside New Orleans, offered to take him in. But an attorney in Caldwell's office emailed the neighborhood association to warn that a cold-blooded murderer was about to be released into their midst. Woodfox's niece reported that her neighbors stopped waving to her family and cars began circling past her house, sometimes stopping. "We became afraid for our children," she said. While his lawyers worked to secure other living arrangements, the court decided to grant the state's emergency motion, declaring that Woodfox would have to remain in custody pending his appeal.

Caldwell has shown a similar determination when it comes to Wallace, who is pursuing his case through state courts, backed by the same legal team. In 2006 a state judicial commissioner issued a report similar in many ways to Christine Noland's, recommending that Wallace's conviction be overturned based largely on questions about Hezekiah Brown's testimony. But the recommendation was subsequently dismissed by both the district court and its appellate court. Wallace has taken his appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court, where his case is pending.

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