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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

The incident that condemned Herman Wallace to a life in lockdown took place at a particularly explosive time in Angola's notoriously violent history. In the early 1970s, Louisiana's 5,000-man penitentiary was the nation's largest prison; it was also notorious for its high rates of murder, rape, and assault. The former slave plantation's 18,000 acres were farmed by prisoners working up to 96 hours a week, overseen by armed inmate guards, known as "trusties." The trusties also oversaw gambling, drug-dealing, and a monstrous system of sexual slavery—sanctioned by some of the all-white corrections officers, who were referred to by staff and inmates alike as "freemen."

"Angola in those days was life and death, buying and selling people, and the officers knew it was happening," Howard Baker, a prisoner who testified at Wallace's trial, stated in a subsequent affidavit. "There was a goon squad of guards. If they came after you, you could get anything from a beating to being killed, and they'd call it being killed by trying to escape." In addition, Baker said, "Physical conditions were about as bad as you can get: hot, dirty, overcrowded. Weapons were everywhere. You could shake down for weapons one night and have just as many the next. I saw as many as four stabbings a week, week after week."

It was also a time of simmering tensions between longtime employees—many of whom had grown up in the staff community on the prison's grounds—and Angola's new "reformist" leadership. A few years earlier, Warden C. Murray Henderson and Deputy Warden Lloyd Hoyle had been brought in from out of state to "clean up Angola." As Wallace's habeas petition states:

Their arrival at Angola disrupted [the Louisiana State Penitentiary's] existing leadership, most of whom had worked their way up the ranks at Angola. Associate Warden Hayden Dees and the old-guard leadership notably resisted their reform efforts, particularly those aimed at ending racial segregation and those directed at according inmates in extended lockdown, known as CCR (closed cell restriction), with due process. Associate Warden Dees in particular believed that "a certain type of militant or revolutionary inmate, maybe even a communist type," should remain under lockdown conditions at all times; he wanted nothing to do with documenting decisions about who went into lockdown and for how long in compliance with federal court requirements.

Among the "militant" inmates were Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, both serving time for armed robbery. After they arrived at Angola they became active members of the prison's chapter of the Black Panther Party. This cadre of inmates organized petitions and hunger strikes to protest the horrendous conditions at the prison, and helped new inmates, known as "fresh fish," protect themselves from sexual assault and enslavement. For their efforts, some of the Panthers were placed in solitary confinement to suppress what was viewed as a threat to prison authority.

On April 17, 1972, 23-year-old guard Brent Miller was found in front of an inmate dormitory, stabbed 32 times. Investigators initially had no suspects, but they soon zeroed in on the activists. In a written description [PDF] of his case, Wallace stated that Hayden Dees, the associate warden, "went well out of his way to tie us in with the death for his own political gain. He claimed that Henderson and Hoyle were responsible for Miller's death by releasing the 'militants' (he linked me and Woodfox to those released)."

Statements from Henderson and Hoyle confirm that some of the guards considered them complicit in the killing. Three days later, Lloyd Hoyle, the deputy warden, was called from home to a meeting of staff members, who accused him of turning loose Miller's murderers. Hoyle was assaulted and pushed through a plate glass door, and nearly bled to death before one of the guards decided to drive him to the hospital. 

Wallace was thrown into lockdown the day of Brent Miller's murder. Within a few days, officials had obtained the evidence they needed to charge Wallace and three other so-called "militants"—Woodfox, Chester Jackson, and Gilbert Montegut—with the crime. They were indicted by an all-white, all-male grand jury in nearby St. Francisville, Louisiana, which was home to many prison staff, their families, and friends.

A river town near the Mississippi border, St. Francisville proudly advertises itself as plantation country. It was also Klan country, and until the civil rights movement and the FBI arrived in the early 1960s, no African American had registered to vote in the parish in more than 60 years. The defendants in the Miller case contested the indictment on the grounds that women and blacks had been systematically excluded from the jury pool. They were subsequently re-indicted by another grand jury, chosen through "the same or substantially the same grand jury selection procedures," according to Wallace's current brief.

Albert Woodfox was convicted of Miller's murder in a separate trial in 1973. After being granted a change of venue, the three remaining defendants—Wallace, Jackson, and Montegut—stood trial in East Baton Rouge in January 1974—before yet another all-white, all-male jury. 
The prosecutors in the case presented no physical evidence to tie the three men to the crime. Although bloody fingerprints had been found near the guard's body, they matched none of the defendants'. According to evidence presented in Wallace's petition, no effort was made to match them to any of the 5,000 other inmate prints on file. A bloody knife, likewise, could not be connected to any of the men on trial. The evidence against them consisted entirely of testimony by other Angola prisoners obtained under highly dubious circumstances.

The prosecution's star witness was Hezekiah Brown, whose eyewitness testimony was indispensible to its case. An aging prisoner serving a life sentence for aggravated rape, Brown said that he had been in the dormitory on the morning of Brent Miller's death, and had seen the defendants stab the guard repeatedly. Former Angola prisoners have said in interviews that Brown was a notorious snitch. But it would be nearly 25 years before proof emerged showing just what happened behind the scenes to secure his testimony.

In 1998, lawyers for Wallace's co-defendant, Albert Woodfox, succeeded in obtaining previously suppressed witness statements, taped interviews, and other documents from the murder investigation carried out by prison officials, the county sheriff's office, and local prosecutors. These materials, supplemented by testimony by Warden Henderson and others, show that Hezekiah Brown was encouraged, if not coerced, to identify the prisoners already chosen as suspects. Henderson admitted he promised to seek a pardon for the lifer if Brown helped them "crack the case." A series of letters to judges, pardon board members, and the secretary of corrections shows that Warden Henderson kept his word, though it would be more than 10 years before Brown's pardon came through. In the meantime, Brown benefitted from an array of special favors, including reassignment to a private room at the low-security "dog pen" where the prison's bloodhounds were trained and a carton of cigarettes, the crucial prison currency, every week.

Another inmate witness, Joseph Richey, placed Wallace and the others at the scene of the crime; he was later found to be a schizophrenic who was heavily medicated with Thorazine. After the trial, Richey was transferred to a plum job at the governor's mansion and given weekend furloughs (during which he robbed several banks). Previously suppressed documents, obtained through the discovery process by Albert Woodfox's lawyers in 1998, show that Angola officials didn't believe Richey had seen anything. The state possessed these documents at the time of Wallace's trial, and presented his possibly perjured testimony nonetheless.

Howard Baker, yet another prisoner who testified at Wallace's trial, has since sworn an affidavit completely recanting his testimony. Baker had initially been a suspect in Miller's murder, and may have been seeking to protect himself. In the affidavit, Baker states:

So I looked at the situation like this, I got 60 something years, and I got a chance to help myself – so I was going to do something to help me get out of this cesspool….So, I gave a statement on 10/16/72, to Warden Dees, which was a lie. And my testimony based on that statement was a lie. I really thought this would help me because Dees told me my statement would get my sentence commuted….It was all over the penitentiary that they [Wallace and Woodfox] were the ones that administration thought was involved. So I gave a statement.

The state played its ace-in-the-hole in the middle of the trial, when one of the four co-defendants walked in after a recess and sat down at the prosecution's table. Chester Jackson had turned state's witness, and would now testify against the others. The defense attorney, Charles Garretson, later testified that he "was in a complete state of shock…it took everything I could glean together to maintain professionalism and sanity and intelligence to go forward after this lunch break." The court gave him less than 30 minutes to prepare to cross-examine his own former client. Although he denied it on the stand, Jackson had clearly cut a deal; shortly after the trial, he would plead guilty to manslaughter. Garretson later said that he felt he was "the only one in the courthouse that didn't know this. I felt that—I know all the deputies knew it. I felt the judge knew it."

These allegations of widespread and deliberate suppression of evidence form the core of Herman Wallace's current appeal. His habeas petition states, "Mr. Wallace's defense strategy was to show that the State's inmate witnesses must be either mistaken or lying. Although the State possessed precisely the information Mr. Wallace's defense counsel sought—material which would show that the State's witnesses lacked credibility and the State's prosecution lacked integrity—the State disclosed none of it." This withholding of evidence, Wallace says, violated his constitutional right to due process.

Wallace's remaining co-defendant, Gilbert Montegut, had a prison guard to confirm his alibi, and was acquitted. Herman Wallace was convicted of the murder. His conviction happened to fall during a brief period when the Supreme Court had effectively struck down capital punishment—had it come at any other time, Wallace would likely have received a death sentence. Instead, he got life without parole and was placed in lockdown, along with Woodfox. The reason given for their confinement in solitary was the nature of the crime—the murder of a guard, which rendered them a threat to others in the prison community. Both Wallace and Woodfox remain there, ostensibly on the same grounds, 35 years later.

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