Court blocks order to free Albert Woodfox, who's spent 43 years in solitary confinement

Albert Woodfox, a Louisiana inmate who has been in solitary confinement for more than 40 years, remained incarcerated Tuesday after a federal appeals court, seeking to give the state time to appeal, temporarily blocked a judge’s order that said the “Angola 3” member should be set free.

Woodfox, now 68, was charged with murdering prison guard Brent Miller in 1972 and convicted twice, but both of those convictions were overturned. State prosecutors are hoping to try him a third time, although the judge barred it Monday, saying he lacks confidence in the state's ability to provide a fair trial.

The Angola 3

As inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Woodfox -- who was originally convicted of armed robbery -- and Herman Wallace and Robert King had organized a chapter of the Black Panthers and had begun mobilizing other African American inmates against brutal conditions inside the prison. In 1972, Woodfox and Wallace were accused of murdering Miller and placed in solitary confinement. King, convicted in the death of another inmate, was also placed in solitary — and the three were kept there for decades.

They maintained that they were kept in solitary as payback for their political activities. Dubbed the Angola 3, they became a cause celebre for prison reform advocates. King spent 29 years in solitary confinement before being released in 2001. Wallace was released from prison in 2013, at age 71, and died days later of complications of liver cancer. King discussed his experiences in the documentary "In the Land of the Free."

43 years in solitary

Woodfox has spent the last 43 years in solitary confinement, locked down for 23 hours a day. The solitary cells at Angola have been described by Britain's Guardian newspaper as a 9-by-6-foot space with a toilet, a mattress, sheets, a blanket, a pillow and a small bench attached to the wall. "I can make about four steps forward before I touch the door," Wallace told the newspaper in 2012. "If I turn an about-face, I'm going to bump into something. I'm used to it, and that's one of the bad things about it." Exercise consisted of access to a caged concrete yard three times a week, according to the Guardian.

'No valid conviction holding him in prison'

On Monday, U.S. District Judge James Brady ordered the unconditional release of Woodfox from state custody and barred a third trial on the 1972 murder charges. Among his findings, Brady wrote, "There is no valid conviction holding him in prison, let alone solitary confinement." Furthermore, he wrote, "there was an abundance of physical evidence available at the crime scene in 1972, but not one piece of physical evidence incriminated Mr. Woodfox."

Five factors for freedom

Brady said in his order that at least five factors combine to justify the "extraordinary remedy" that is Woodfox's unconditional release, including Brady's lack of confidence in the state to provide a fair trial, as well as the years Woodfox has spent in solitary confinement. The factors also included Woodfox’s age and poor health and his limited ability to represent a defense at a third trial due to the unavailability of witnesses, Brady wrote. "And finally," he wrote, "the very fact that Mr. Woodfox has already been tried twice and would otherwise face his third trial for a crime that occurred over 40 years ago."

Judge bars retrial

Woodfox will not be tried a third time in the prison guard's death, Brady ordered Monday. "This court questions the strength of the evidence keeping Mr. Woodfox incarcerated for the murder of Mr. Miller," he wrote. "Given the nature of our criminal justice system, Mr. Woodfox, at age 68, is facing perhaps another 20 years before a court determines if he was given a fair third trial."

Reaction to the news

Amnesty International, which took up the case, cheered Monday's development.

Steven W. Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in a statement that Woodfox had suffered "from serious health problems caused or made worse by his years of close confinement."

State prosecutors, on the other hand, are working to keep Woodfox in prison. With Monday’s order, "the court would see fit to set free a twice-convicted murderer," Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for Louisiana Atty. Gen. Buddy Caldwell, told the Associated Press on Monday. "This order arbitrarily sets aside jury decisions and gives a free pass to a murderer based on faulty procedural issues."

On Tuesday, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay temporarily blocking part of Brady’s order so the state can put together an appeal. The block is to expire Friday afternoon.

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3:21 p.m. June 9: This story has been updated with information on an appeals court's stay.

The first version of this story was published at 10:27 p.m. June 8.

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