In June, a judge ordered the release of Albert Woodfox, the last of the “Angola Three” prisoners who remained behind bars. The judge went on to say that Woodfox, who had spent four decades in solitary confinement and twice been convicted of murder, could not be put on a trial a third time.
On Monday, a federal appeals court reversed that decision, saying that Louisiana could try Woodfox once again and dismissing the earlier decision to grant an “unconditional writ” preventing the state from putting him on trial a third time.
“[T]he factors identified by the district court as ‘exceptional circumstances’ do not merit an unconditional writ and improperly assume that state courts will not provide Woodfox with a fair retrial,” Judge Carolyn Dineen King wrote for a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans.
This case “does not present a constitutional defect that cannot be cured at retrial,” the panel said in its 2-1 decision Monday.
Woodfox was convicted in the April 1972 killing of Brent Miller, a prison guard at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. He and two other men became known as “Angola Three,” a group that was the focus of international efforts rallying against their solitary confinement and the conditions of their imprisonment.
“We are extremely disappointed in the reversal of the district court opinion barring any further trial of Albert Woodfox,” George Kendall, an attorney for Woodfox, said in a statement.
Judge James J. Brady of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana said in a June decision that Woodfox must be freed after four decades in solitary confinement in Louisiana.
The state of Louisiana quickly fought the judge’s order, with Louisiana Attorney General James D. “Buddy” Caldwell filing an emergency stay motion with appeals court trying to prevent Woodfox’s release.
Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for Caldwell, said at the time that the judge’s order “arbitrarily sets aside jury decisions and gives a free pass to a murderer based on faulty procedural issues.”
A spokesman for the Louisiana attorney general could not be immediately reached for comment.
Kendall said that the case’s circumstances proved that Louisiana, which continues to hold Woodfox in solitary confinement, “can no longer provide a fair 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 railed against the legal case against Woodfox and Wallace.
“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.
After Brady’s order was released in June, the circuit court granted a temporary stay and extended it to allow the state to appeal.
Brady had said there were multiple factors in the case’s history that caused him to determine that Woodfox should be released and not allowed to stand trial for a third time. He cited Woodfox’s age and medical issues, his decades in solitary confinement and the fact that it would be tough for him to mount another defense since so many of the witnesses in the case had died.
In addition, Brady wrote that the evidence against Woodfox was not overwhelming and said he lacked confidence that the state could “provide a fair third trial.”
But the appeals court said in June it was not convinced, writing at the time that “there is a substantial interest in staying the release of a person, twice convicted of murder, from being released from a life sentence without the possibility of parole.”
On Monday, the appeals court panel dismissed these arguments against holding a third trial.
“The various factors are immaterial, better addressed in other proceedings, or improperly assume that state courts will be unable to provide Woodfox with a fair retrial,” the panel wrote.
Judgee James L. Dennis, writing in a dissent to the circuit court panel’s decision, decried “the wrongful harm done to Woodfox, not only as a litigant but also as a human being by his two unconstitutional convictions and his egregious four decades of solitary confinement.”
“Today’s ruling means he is set to face now a third trial, 43 years after the crime was committed,” Jasmine Heiss, a senior campaigner with Amnesty International USA, said in a telephone interview Monday night. “If the attorney general of Louisiana had not so relentlessly pursued vengeance rather than justice, we are confident Albert would already be free.”
A judicial district court in Louisiana held a hearing in September as a prelude to a possible third trial.
“Albert remains trapped in legal limbo and in solitary confinement fighting to prove his innocence, with no clear sense of when that trial will move forward,” Heiss said.
This post has been updated.