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Southern Injustice

Convicted of murder in a deeply flawed trial, Herman Wallace has spent nearly 37 years in solitary confinement. Will new evidence finally lead to his release?

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 8:00 AM EST
Herman Wallace

Update 10/04/13 2:09 p.m PDT: Herman Wallace died in his sleep Thursday, October 3, 2013, due to complications from liver cancer. His conviction was overturned and he was released from prison three days earlier, on October 1, 2013. Before his release, he had been in solitary confinement for nearly 42 years.

For the better part of four decades, Victory Wallace, 70, has made a monthly trip from New Orleans to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to visit her brother Herman, who just turned 68. The 140-mile journey has shades of Heart of Darkness, following the course of the Mississippi River to a remote prison colony from which most inmates never return. At the dark heart of this former slave plantation, Herman Wallace has lived most of the past 37 years in solitary confinement, imprisoned alone for 23 hours a day in a 6-by-9-foot cell.

When Herman was moved in the spring of 2009 from Angola to Hunt Correctional Center near Baton Rouge, Vickie's trip got a bit shorter. But what she found when she arrived on her most recent visit was even worse than usual. Because of a disciplinary infraction, Herman had been placed in "extended administrative lockdown." That meant Vickie was denied a contact visit, and was permitted to see her brother only through a glass partition as they spoke over a telephone. His hands were shackled to the table. (Other recent visitors reported that the shackles made it hard for him to hold the phone to his ear, while his hearing loss made communication over the telephone difficult.) Herman complained to Vickie that he was cold, and she thought that he had lost weight. His spirits, she said, were not the best.

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For years, Herman Wallace's hopes have ridden on two cases that are inching their way through the courts—one challenging his conviction, the other challenging his long-term solitary confinement. Now, after a decade of starts and stops, obstacles and delays, both cases are advancing toward conclusions that will determine how he spends what's left of his life.

With the exception of a few brief intervals, Wallace has been living in lockdown since 1972, when he was accused of murdering a young Angola prison guard. Along with another inmate named Albert Woodfox, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life without parole. Wallace, Woodfox, and a third longtime prisoner called Robert King—who are known as the Angola 3—are also plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit alleging that their unparalleled time in solitary violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The case—which could potentially affect the estimated 25,000 American prisoners living in long-term lockdown—is expected to come to trial in the US District Court in Baton Rouge in early 2010.

Since 1990, Wallace has also been appealing his criminal conviction in the Louisiana state courts. He believes that he was targeted for the guard's murder because of his involvement in Angola's chapter of the Black Panther Party, which had been organizing against conditions in what was then known as "the bloodiest prison in the South." Wallace contends that the prosecution's witnesses—all of them fellow Angola prisoners—were coached, bribed, coerced, or threatened into giving false testimony against him by prison employees bent on revenge. "If they could have hung and burned the guys involved they would have," one inmate witness later told Wallace's lawyers. "But there was too much light on the situation." Documents and testimony that have surfaced since the trial show that prosecutors knew a good part of their case was unreliable or manufactured. The state's own judicial commissioner, assigned to study the case in 2006, recommended that Wallace's conviction be overturned. Even the prison guard's widow has publicly stated that she now doubts the guilt of the two men convicted of her husband's murder, and still wants to see his killers brought to justice. But the Louisiana courts, one after another, have rejected his appeal, providing no reasons for their decisions.

Now, Wallace has turned to the federal courts. On December 4, he filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus—basically, a plea for a reversal of his wrongful conviction. It is his last chance to win a new trial, and possibly his freedom. On his side are a team of skilled pro-bono attorneys who have assembled a brief full of evidence that was hidden or suppressed 35 years ago during his original trial. Against him is an increasingly conservative federal court system, along with two of the most powerful figures in Louisiana criminal justice: Angola's famous warden, Burl Cain, and the state's ambitious attorney general, James "Buddy" Caldwell, both of whom appear determined to fight to the bitter end to ensure that Herman Wallace never again sees the light of day.

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