Last 'Angola 3' prisoner freed, after decades in solitary confinement

Albert Woodfox, the final member of the “Angola 3” who supporters say spent more time in solitary confinement than any prisoner in U.S. history, was freed in Louisiana on Friday after spending more than four decades in isolation.

In a plea deal Friday that secured his freedom, Woodfox pleaded no contest to charges related to the 1972 killing of corrections officer Brent Miller, which Woodfox long contended he didn't commit.

Miller's death had sent Woodfox down a decades-long odyssey of murder trials, overturned convictions and seemingly endless solitude in a 6-by-9 foot cell as human rights groups campaigned for his release.

All that ended Friday with little ceremony. Accompanied by his brother, Woodfox lifted his fist in the air and smiled as he walked out of the West Feliciana Parish Detention Center, where he was being held during his appeals.

It was Woodfox's 69th birthday, and the first time he has been a free man since entering the Louisiana State Penitentiary, nicknamed "Angola,” on a robbery charge in 1971. Most of his sentence was spent in solitary confinement.

“Albert, how does it feel?” a reporter asked him after he got into a car waiting to take him away, according to local news video of his release.

Woodfox sat silent for a moment, and then spoke slowly: “Uh, I really haven't decided yet.” The smile that tugged at the corners of Woodfox's mouth faded when he was asked what he planned to do next.

“I need to go say goodbye to my mother,” Woodfox said. “I wasn't allowed to go to her funeral while I was in Angola. And my sister as well.” 

Woodfox's case was celebrated among prison-reform advocates who have maintained his innocence and equated long-term solitary confinement with torture.

Along with Herman Wallace, who was also accused of killing Miller; and another inmate also in long-term isolation, Robert King; the trio became known the Angola 3. The three men, all of them African American, organized a chapter of the Black Panthers black-nationalist group to campaign for better prison conditions.

In the mid-20th century, “Angola” was as much a symbol of despair as it was a prison. A former plantation that got its nickname from the origin of its slaves, the penitentiary was known for its brutality, where rape flourished and 31 inmates once severed their own Achilles' tendons in protest in 1952.

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As Times staff writer Miguel Bustillo wrote in 2008: “The Louisiana State Penitentiary was infamous in the '60s and '70s as the bloodiest in the South, a place where guards routinely beat prisoners and inmates killed one another with crude knives. New Orleans musicians sang ominously about it like Greek poets evoking the underworld of Hades.”

It was inside the prison where Miller, a white guard, was found on Feb. 5, 1972, stabbed 32 times. The scene was so gruesome that another guard said it looked like Miller was wearing a red shirt, and he promptly quit his job.

Woodfox was convicted of Miller's murder in 1973, but the verdict was overturned because of discrimination in the grand jury process. Woodfox was convicted again in 1998, but the verdict was again overturned in 2014.

State prosecutors had hoped to try him a third time, but a federal judge had signaled opposition to keeping Woodfox in prison.

Woodfox's attorneys -- who said that no forensic evidence links Woodfox or Wallace to the killing and that officials had plied inmates with incentives to testify -- said the remaining witnesses in the case were all dead.

“There were serious questions about whether a conviction would be viable,” one of Woodfox's attorneys, Katherine Kimpel of Washington, told the Los Angeles Times on Friday.

Under Woodfox's plea Friday to lesser charges of manslaughter and aggravated burglary, he does not admit guilt but also gives up his right to appeal the conviction. In return, he was credited with time served.

“Although I was looking forward to proving my innocence at a new trial, concerns about my health and my age have caused me to resolve this case now and obtain my release with this no-contest plea to lesser charges. I hope the events of today will bring closure to many,” Woodfox said in a statement released through his attorneys.

Calling Friday's plea deal a “very difficult decision,” Louisiana Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry said the agreement was “in the best interest of justice” and also cited a need for closure.

“Today’s plea brings closure to the family of Brent Miller, justice for the people of Louisiana, and finality to this decades-long prosecution,” Landry said in a statement. “Albert Woodfox, by his own plea, stands convicted of the homicide of Brent Miller.”

Of the other Angola 3 members, King was released after an appeal overturned his conviction in 2001, and Wallace died at 71 mere days after an appeal secured his release in 2013, unaware that a grand jury had already re-indicted him for Miller's death.

Woodfox's first priority is getting his health back, Kimpel said.

Next, Woodfox plans “to do what he can to help bring about reform, particularly as it surrounds solitary confinement and the excessive use and abuse of it," the attorney said. 

@MattDPearce

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