Party for Socialism and Liberation
In a major victory for the long-imprisoned Angola 3, Federal Magistrate Judge Christine Nolan recommended on June 10 that Albert Woodfox’s conviction be overturned.
Herman and Albert
Woodfox, along with Herman Wallace, has been imprisoned for more than 36 years—nearly the entire time in solitary confinement—inside the infamous Louisiana State Prison at Angola. The third member of the Angola 3, Robert King Wilkerson, was released in 2001 after serving 29 years.
Judge Nolan called for overturning Woodfox’s conviction due to incompetent counsel by his ex-lawyer. In his 1998 retrial, Woodfox was again convicted in a proceeding widely viewed as a travesty of justice. His attorney failed to object to the admission of testimony by witnesses who had died since his original 1972 trial for the killing of prison guard Brent Miller. Woodfox’s lawyer also allowed the prosecutor to testify about the chief prosecution witness’s credibility in the retrial.
Nolan’s recommendation must be accepted or rejected by U.S. District Judge James Brady. In most cases, federal judges ratify the recommendations of magistrates. However, given the highly political character of the case, Angola 3 supporters are hopeful but know that there is no such assurance. Last year, a state commissioner’s recommendation that Herman Wallace’s conviction be overturned was rejected by a state judge. That decision is under appeal.
Angola 3 Defense Committee spokesperson Marina Drummer said of the June 10 recommendation: “The recent magistrate’s ruling in Albert’s case is a landmark decision that we believe will lead to his freedom. And surely, Herman will not be far behind. That would mean that one sad chapter in Louisiana’s miserable, racist injustice system would finally come to an end for these two men and their families. But there are thousands of other unjustly convicted men and women who continue to languish in the prisons of Louisiana and across the country.”
Political activists caught in racist frame-up
In 1971, Woodfox and Wallace helped found a chapter of the Black Panther Party inside Angola, the most notorious prison in the United States. A wave of rebellion was engulfing the U.S. prison system at the time—from Attica in New York to San Quentin in California.
Angola penitentiary is a complex of buildings amid huge sugarcane, cotton and soybean fields run on the slave labor of prisoners. Nearly all the prisoners were and are African American.
Angola became the site of the first official prison chapter of the Black Panther Party. The Black Panthers grew rapidly in strength, and attempted to put an end to the extreme corruption and brutality of the “trustee system.” Under this system, selected prisoners were made “trustees,” given favors and guns, and empowered to rule over and exploit the majority of inmates. Rape of young prisoners was rampant. In the dormitories where the Black Panther Party was strong, these practices were stopped. This was viewed as a threat by the authorities.
The all-white prison administration, headed by the notorious Warden Murray Henderson, responded to an upsurge of prisoner activism with extreme repression. In the years that followed, many bodies of murdered prisoners were exhumed from the surrounding swamps.
In April 1972, guard Miller was stabbed to death. Only one person, inmate Hezekiah Brown, witnessed the killing. At first Brown said he could not identify anyone involved because their faces had been covered.
After several days of pressure, however, Brown changed his story and identified four men: Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace, Gilbert Montegut and Chester Jackson. They became known as the Angola 4.
Montegut, a revolutionary activist like Woodfox and Wallace, was later acquitted. Jackson struck a deal and testified for the prosecution. Years later, evidence emerged that both Hezekiah Brown and Chester Jackson were paid off with sentence reductions and material incentives.
Putting the Black Panther Party on trial
After winning a new trial, Woodfox was indicted anew in 1993. One of the grand jurors was Anne Butler, an author and the wife of Warden Henderson. Butler had written a book, “Dying to Tell,” about Angola prison. The first chapter was on the death of guard Miller, based on the state’s version that Woodfox and Wallace were guilty.
Instead of calling witnesses, the assistant district attorney in charge of presenting the case to the grand jury requested that Butler “explain” the case. The new indictment was then handed up. Judge Bruce Bennett turned down a motion by Woodfox’s lawyers to throw the case out based on outrageous grand juror prejudice.
Woodfox’s 1998 trial was before a classic kangaroo court. As Dr. Gail Shaw, a long-time supporter of the Angola 3, said at the time, “the state’s case was really based on putting the Black Panther Party on trial.”
The prosecution introduced statements from Hezekiah Brown and former warden Henderson, which were allowed into testimony unchallenged by the defense attorneys. In an intimidating show of force on the final day of the trial, prison guards, state police and local sheriffs—all in full-dress uniforms—packed the courtroom, emphasizing to the small-town jury of Amite their expectation of a guilty verdict. Their expectations, predictably, were met.
Outside the Amite courthouse in 1998, Geronimo ji Jaga, who himself had just been released the previous year after spending 27 years in behind bars in California on frame-up charges, testified about the courage of Woodfox and Wallace: “They endured and survived over all these years with very little help from the outside. They are the kind of unsung heroes who we must come forward to help because they never asked for anything from us in exchange for what they have suffered.”
Ten years later, the Angola 3 are still victims of indescribable justice. What has changed over the past decade is that their case has become internationally known, thanks to a tremendous campaign waged by the Angola 3 Defense Committee and supporters in the United States and around the world.
Now, the challenge is to win the final victory and set Woodfox and Wallace free.
The author attended the 1998 retrial of Albert Woodfox in Amite, Louisiana. For more information about the struggle of the Angola 3, go to www.angola3.org.