Louisiana’s “justice” keeps man locked up in isolation for over 40 years
Albert Woodfox has spent more than half his life in a cell just three paces wide and four paces long.
The 66-year-old man was convicted in 1972 of the murder of Brent Miller, a prison guard.
He claims he is innocent and organizations including Amnesty International have said his case raises serious legal and human rights concerns.
A federal district court in Louisiana recently ruled that his conviction should be overturned.
But Louisiana Attorney General James Caldwell has said he will appeal the ruling.
He says Albert Woodfox is a “career criminal” who should remain behind bars.
The case continues to paint a disturbing picture of justice in Louisiana.
In 2008, the same federal district court issued a ruling that overturned Albert Woodfox’s conviction though he remained in prison pending the bail hearing.
During this time, the Attorney General’s office emailed the neighbours of Woodfox’s niece, to whom he was intended to be released on bail, to advise them that that her uncle was a violent rapist and convicted murderer. He urged the neighbours to sign petitions to oppose his release.
When the federal district court subsequently ordered that Woodfox be released on bail, the judge criticised the Attorney General’s intimidation campaign.
Despite the bail order, Woodfox remained in prison following another intervention by the Attorney General who appealed this recommendation to a higher court.
Attorney General Caldwell has recently renewed his public attacks, circulating allegations about Woodfox's alleged criminal activities in the 1960s, linking him to unsolved rapes and sexual assaults, and insisting that the state's murder case against Woodfox is "very strong".
Setting the record straightAlbert Woodfox has never been tried or convicted of rape. Nor, after 41 years in prison, does his disciplinary record indicate that he is dangerous or violent. The prison system’s own mental health assessments indicate that he does not pose a threat to himself or others.
He has been tried twice for the murder of Brent Miller. The first conviction was overturned and he was retried and reconvicted. That conviction was overturned and then reinstated on appeal. Now this latest ruling overturns the conviction again.
At the original trial, the conviction relied heavily on testimony from Hezekiah Brown – who was the only witness to testify to actually seeing Albert commit the murder - as well as statements from four other fellow inmates.
There was no physical evidence linking Albert Woodfox to the murder. DNA evidence that was potentially favourable to the defendant has been lost - a bloody fingerprint found close to the body didn’t match any of the four defendants, and no attempt has been made by the State or prison officials to identify it through the prison fingerprint database.
Evidence has emerged since Hezekiah Brown’s death in 1996 that in return for his testimony, he had received benefits from the state – including immediate transfer from the prison to a cottage on the grounds and a weekly ration of a carton of cigarettes.
For more than 10 years, the Warden petitioned repeatedly for a pardon for Brown, which was finally granted in 1986.
According to a magistrate judge who reviewed the case in 2008, Brown’s testimony was “so critical to [the prosecution’s] case that without it there would probably be no case.”
Two of the four eyewitnesses who testified to Albert Woodfox’s involvement in the crime have since recanted their testimony. One has stated that he made up his testimony because he had been told by officials that they would help him transfer out of Angola prison.
Colonel Nyati Bast, a former inmate, testified during Albert Woodfox’s first trial that he was with him in the dining hall at the time of the attack on Brent Miller, which took place in another part of the prison.
Bast was placed in solitary confinement soon after he revealed this information to prison officials, and remained there for the duration of his 20-year sentence. He stands by his original testimony.
Of the remaining witnesses, one was legally blind and the other was heavily medicated at the time of the murder.
Real justiceThe inconsistencies and flaws in the legal process led Brent Miller’s widow in 2008 to call for a new investigation into the case: “If they did not do this – and I believe they didn’t – they have been living a nightmare for 36 years”.
Albert Woodfox has been kept in solitary confinement for more than 40 years – held for 23 hours a day in a small, starkly furnished cell, and allowed out only to walk along the cell corridor, shower or exercise alone.
He has been deprived of access to work, rehabilitative programmes and group activity. As a consequence of these conditions, his physical and mental health has deteriorated.
Amnesty International is appealing to the Attorney General not to appeal the District Court’s recent ruling.
“Enough is enough. After four decades, real justice in this case is long overdue.” said Tessa Murphy, USA Campaigner at Amnesty International. “The ruling by the federal district court should be allowed to stand.”