Forty-three years ago, deep in rural Louisiana, three young black men were silenced for trying to expose continued segregation, systematic corruption, and horrific abuse in the biggest prison in the US, an 18,000 acre former slave plantation called Angola. Peaceful, non-violent protest in the form of hunger and work strikes organized by inmates caught the attention of Louisiana’s elected leaders and local media in the early 1970s. They soon called for investigations into a host of unconstitutional and extraordinarily inhumane practices commonplace in what was then the “bloodiest prison in the South.” Eager to put an end to outside scrutiny, prison officials began punishing inmates they saw as troublemakers. At the height of this unprecedented institutional chaos, Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace, and Robert King were charged with murders they did not commit and thrown into 6x9 foot solitary cells.
Robert was released in 2001, and Herman in October 2013, and finally Albert in 2016. Despite a number of reforms achieved in the mid-70s, many officials repeatedly ignore both evidence of misconduct, and of innocence. The State’s case is riddled with inconsistencies, obfuscations, and missteps. A bloody print at the murder scene does not match Albert, Herman, or anyone charged with the crime and was never compared with the limited number of other prisoners who had access to the dormitory on the day of the murder. Potentially exculpatory DNA evidence has been “lost” by prison officials—including fingernail scrapings from the victim and barely visible “specks” of blood on clothing alleged to have been worn by Albert. Both Albert and Herman had multiple alibi witnesses with nothing to gain who testified they were far away from the scene when the murder occurred. In contrast, several State witnesses lied under oath about rewards for their testimony. The prosecution’s star witness Hezekiah Brown told the jury: “Nobody promised me nothing.” But new evidence shows Hezekiah, a convicted serial rapist serving life, agreed to testify only in exchange for a pardon, a weekly carton of cigarettes, TV, birthday cakes, and other luxuries. “Hezekiah was one you could put words in his mouth,” the Warden reminisced chillingly in an interview about the case years later. Even the widow of the victim after reviewing the evidence believes Herman and Albert’s trials were unfair, has grave doubts about their guilt, and is calling upon officials to find the real killer.
Herman’s conviction was finally overturned in October of 2013 by a Federal Judge. Although his trial was riddled with evidence of prosecutorial misconduct and other constitutional violations, it was the systematic exclusion of women from his jury in violation of the 14th Amendment that freed him. Unfortunately, he was released in the late stages of advanced liver cancer and only experienced 3 days of freedom. Sadly for Herman, justice delayed was justice denied. Albert’s conviction was overturned three times, most recently in February of 2013 due to a finding of racial discrimination in the selection of his grand jury foreperson. The first two times judges cited racial discrimination, prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate defense, and suppression of exculpatory evidence. In February 2015, after losing a bitter two-year appeals court battle to have the conviction reinstated, the State of Louisiana took the first steps towards retrying Albert for a third time. Although no longer convicted of a crime, Louisiana prison officials refused to release Albert from solitary because “there’s been no rehabilitation” from “practicing Black Pantherism.”
Over a decade ago Herman, Albert and Robert filed a civil lawsuit challenging the inhumane and increasingly pervasive practice of long-term solitary confinement. Magistrate Judge Dalby describes their almost four decades of solitary as “durations so far beyond the pale” she could not find “anything even remotely comparable in the annals of American jurisprudence.” The case will detail unconstitutionally cruel and unusual treatment and systematic due process violations at the hands of Louisiana officials.