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Albert Woodfox: It’s time to free the last of the Angola 3

January 15, 2014

by Hillary Donnell

Last Tuesday, Jan. 7, a crowd of supporters gathered in the bitter cold in New Orleans’ Lafayette Square outside the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to show their support for Angola 3 inmate Albert Woodfox. Woodfox has been held in solitary confinement – or what the state of Louisiana calls “Closed Cell Restriction” – for 42 years.

Woodfox hearing 5th Circuit supporters rally 010714 by Hillary Donnell
Supporters rally in Lafayette Square outside the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals as the judges consider whether to free Albert Woodfox, whose conviction has been overturned three times. – Photo: Hillary Donnell
By most estimates, 42 years is the longest any prisoner has been held in isolation. He is now the last remaining incarcerated member of the Angola 3, as Robert King and Herman Wallace were released in 2001 and 2013 respectively. Wallace was deemed innocent by the state and released on Oct. 2 of last year. His triumph was short-lived, as he passed away just three days later.

Woodfox has seen his original conviction overturned three times. Judges have cited racial discrimination, prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate defense and suppression of exculpatory evidence in past decisions to overturn his conviction. Each time the state of Louisiana has appealed the decisions.

Outside the courtroom, those gathered presented a striking visual display, sporting yellow scarves and a large yellow banner emblazoned with “Justice for Albert Woodfox.” Opinions on the proceedings were mixed. Some were skeptical about the judges’ apparent lack of information about the case, while others felt that the judges had already made up their mind and were merely probing both sides for additional information.

Long-time supporter Gloria Rubac said of her hopes for the ruling: “In Albert’s particular case, it’s unjust that he’s even locked up … I’m hoping that this 5th Circuit panel will rule in his favor will ignore the appeals and will let the previous ruling stand.”

Woodfox has seen his original conviction overturned three times. Judges have cited racial discrimination, prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate defense and suppression of exculpatory evidence in past decisions to overturn his conviction. Each time the state of Louisiana has appealed the decisions.

Inside the courtroom, Woodfox’s legal team argued that there was racial discrimination in the selection process of the grand jury that convicted him and that the jury did not reflect the racial makeup of West Feliciana parish where he was tried. The state denied intent to discriminate and cited that criteria other than race were used to select the jury, including what they called “race neutral factors,” such as literacy, education and occupation, arguing that evidence of discrimination was “razor thin.”

Woodfox hearing 5th Circuit Robert King speaks 010714 by Hillary Donnell
Robert King, the first of the Angola 3 to win his freedom, has devoted his life to freeing his comrades. – Photo: Hillary Donnell
Supporters took a different view. “It’s interesting that the issue being raised is racism … I’m from Texas, and racism is such an integral part of everything that goes on down here in the South. Just to hear them discuss whether the statistics proved intent, I can look at my own family and see that there’s intentional racism going on in the courts as well as on the streets,” said Rubac.

Rubac said that she became aware of the Angola 3 case in the 1970s while active in the Civil Rights Movement. She said it first attracted her attention because “first of all they were involved with the Black Panther Party, and I know what the U.S. government has done to the Black Panther Party.”

Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace and Robert King were each imprisoned in the early ‘70s for separate crimes. The three met while at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The overt racism and brutality practiced by prison officials there became the defining factor of their imprisonment.

Together, they founded a chapter of the Black Panther Party from within the prison as a basis for organizing for more humane prison conditions. The existence of a Black Panther Party chapter posed a direct threat to the prison authorities, just as Black Power posed a threat to established white supremacy and institutional racism across the South.

Malik Rahim, founder of Common Ground Collective and the former Black Panther who helped bring light to the Angola 3 case in the late ‘90s, believes that Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell still harbors some of these same fears.

“What is on trial and what he is arguing is not the conviction [for the murder] of Brent Miller, but the teachings of the Black Panther Party, his hatred of what he called “Black Pantherism.” Their main thing is to always show that model to others, that if you stand up for justice … this is what we’ll do to you. We will lock you up and we will keep you no matter how much it costs or how long it takes,” said Rahim.

Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace and Robert King met while at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The overt racism and brutality practiced by prison officials there became the defining factor of their imprisonment. Together, they founded a chapter of the Black Panther Party from within the prison as a basis for organizing for more humane prison conditions.

On the eve of Tuesday’s hearing, human rights group Amnesty International relaunched their ongoing campaign to free Woodfox under the new headline “End the Four Decade Campaign of Vengeance and Release Albert Woodfox.” The Amnesty campaign and petition states, “Prison records show that Woodfox has not committed any serious disciplinary infractions for decades and that he doesn’t pose a threat to himself or others.”

Rahim recalls the last time there was the potential for Woodfox to be out on bond. “(O)ur attorney general wrote a letter saying he was the most dangerous prisoner in the state of Louisiana. What has he done in the last 40 years to make him think that he is the most dangerous prisoner in the state of Louisiana?”

Despite Woodfox’s flawless behavioral record, Caldwell is well known for repeating claims that Woodfox is the most dangerous man on the planet. The state seems to agree, given the amount of taxpayer money that has been spent on the trial. Rahim cited Angola 3 attorney Nick Trenticosta’s estimate that the state has spent over $6 million in legal fees to keep this trial afloat.

“Since Katrina, they have spent this much on keeping elderly men captive,” said Rahim.

Woodfox hearing 5th Circuit Jackie Sumell speaks 010714 by Hillary Donnell
The widely acclaimed film, “Herman’s House,” tells the extraordinary story of Jackie Sumell’s support for the Angola 3. – Photo: Hillary Donnell
If the three judge panel decides to uphold the prior ruling to overturn, then Woodfox’s case will go to trial once more. Jackie Sumell, artist and co-creator along with Herman Wallace of the Herman’s House project has been organizing with the Louisiana Coalition to Free the Angola 3 for 10 years.

According to Sumell, “The next steps would be to put together a defense team, because we are sure that the state will want to re-indict Woodfox for a crime he didn’t commit 42 years later.”

Until then, Woodfox remains incarcerated at David Wade Correctional facility, isolated for 23 hours a day in a 6-by-9-foot cell. Robert King himself spent 29 years in isolation at Angola.

King attended the hearing and spoke at the rally afterwards reminding the crowd that Woodfox’s case is also part of a larger struggle to end the practice of solitary confinement. Ten years ago the Angola 3 filed a civil suit highlighting the cruel and unusual nature of this form of punishment.

That case is scheduled for a two-week trial beginning on June 2, 2014. The results of that suit could have implications for more than 80,000 inmates who are held in conditions of isolation similar to Woodfox in prisons across America on any given day.

Hillary Donnell, a reporter for WTUL 91.5FM, the local independent radio station in New Orleans, recently produced an audio piece on Albert Woodfox’s hearing that is set to air this Wednesday on WTUL. She can be reached at Hrdonnell@gmail.com.

 

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