For more than four decades, Albert Woodfox has been in solitary confinement in Louisiana. This week, a federal judge said the inmate — the last of the so-called “Angola Three” still behind bars — should be released, though the state quickly filed a motion seeking to keep him incarcerated.

Woodfox was sent to solitary for the killing of Brent Miller, a prison guard at the Louisiana State Penitentiary who was stabbed in April 1972. Woodfox is one of the “Angola Three,” a high-profile trio of inmates held in isolation who became the focus of international efforts decrying the prison conditions. 

On Monday, a judge ordered that Woodfox be released and barred a third trial for the inmate, who has been convicted twice before and saw the convictions overturned both times.

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“Mr. Woodfox has remained in the extraordinary conditions of solitary confinement for approximately forty years now, and yet today there is no valid conviction holding him in prison, let alone solitary confinement,” Judge James J. Brady of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana wrote in his order Monday.

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However, a day later, Woodfox remained incarcerated in the West Feliciana parish jail about 30 miles north of Baton Rouge. On Tuesday, the office of Louisiana Attorney General James D. “Buddy” Caldwell filed an emergency stay motion with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit trying to prevent Woodfox’s release.

The appeals court granted a temporary stay Tuesday.

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“We are hopeful that the Court of Appeals will grant this stay, for the sake of the families of his victims and the multiple juries and grand juries that independently determined that this inmate should be held accountable for his multiple crimes,” Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for Caldwell, had said in an e-mail before the stay was granted.

Sadler said in a statement after Brady’s order was released that the decision “arbitrarily sets aside jury decisions and gives a free pass to a murderer based on faulty procedural issues.”

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Still, attorneys for Woodfox said they “are optimistic” that the state will ultimately comply with the order and release Woodfox.

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“There is nothing arbitrary about the federal court’s ruling, which is carefully considered and relies on firmly established law,” George Kendall and Carine Williams, his attorneys, said in a statement Tuesday. “As that law requires, under the extraordinary circumstances of this case — where Mr. Woodfox has spent 40 years in solitary confinement under constitutionally invalid convictions — the only just remedy is his immediate release from prison.”

In his order, Brady cited the case’s thorny history — Woodfox was convicted of second-degree murder in 1973, but that was overturned, and he was convicted on the same count in 1998 before that was overturned — but he said there were multiple other factors that led him to determine that Woodfox should be released and not allowed to stand trial again. (Woodfox was indicted in February for the same crime.)

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These factors included Woodfox’s age and medical issues, his long stay in solitary confinement and the fact that it will be tough to mount another defense since so many of the case’s witnesses have died. In addition, Brady wrote that the evidence against Woodfox is not overwhelming and said he lacked confidence that the state could “provide a fair third trial.”

Woodfox and Herman Wallace were convicted of murder in Miller’s stabbing and placed in isolation, along with Robert King, who had been convicted of another crime. King was released in 2001, while Wallace was released in 2013; he died of cancer four days later.

In a 2011 report, Amnesty International decried the legal case against Woodfox and Wallace.

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“No physical evidence linking the men to the guard’s murder has ever been found; potentially exculpatory DNA evidence has been lost; and the convictions were based on questionable inmate testimony,” the report stated.

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That report also outlined the “clear psychological effect” solitary confinement had on the men. Research has shown that prolonged solitary confinement can have a devastating psychological impact, causing depression, anxiety and psychosis, among other things.

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