on January 06, 2014 at 9:59 PM, updated January 07, 2014 at 4:44 AM
For the second time in three years, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals will decide whether Angola 3 member Albert Woodfox deserves another retrial for his now decades-old murder conviction of prison guard Brent Miller.
Woodfox's case spans four decades and three courts, during which time he has been reconvicted once and has had the conviction overturned three times, twice by the same judge in the past few years. But while the case's history is complex, the legal arguments to be heard by the three New Orleans-area appellate judges on Tuesday are fairly narrow.
Woodfox's attorneys, hailing from as near as St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans and as far away as Los Angeles, will argue that Woodfox did not receive a fair trial the second time around because the process by which Woodfox was charged by the grand jury was discriminatory, in that the Grand Jury foreperson did not represent the racial makeup of the parish in question, in this case West Feliciana. Woodfox is black. The grand jury foreperson was white. Woodfox's attorneys have presented data that they argue shows a pattern of discriminatory grand jury foreperson selection in West Feliciana over several years.
The state will argue Woodfox has been twice convicted of Miller's murder -- in 1974 and 1998 -- adding the state court heard Woodfox's discrimination claim in his second trial and decided it had no merit.Woodfox and fellow Angola inmate Herman Wallace were convicted in separate trials by all-white juries of the 1972 brutal stabbing of Miller, a young and popular guard at the state penitentiary also known as Angola.
The incident occurred during a particularly tumultuous time in the prison's history, when rape and violence were rampant and relations between the all-white cadre of guards and the inmates they oversaw were tense.
After their convictions, Woodfox and Wallace continued to maintain their innocence and stated their implication in the murder was in retribution for starting the prison's first Black Panther chapter. The two soon found themselves in permanent lockdown, spending at least 23 hours a day in solitary confinement for more than four decades.
A third inmate, Robert Hillary King (formerly Wilkerson), was also key in forming the chapter. Soon after he came to Angola, he was convicted of murdering a fellow inmate and also incarcerated in solitary confinement, defined as a 6' x 9' single-occupancy cell with extremely limited, sometimes no, access to anyone but prison staff.
Lost for years in the system, the three inmates were unknown to the wider world until the early 1990s, when former Black Panther Malik Rahim publicized how long Woodfox, Wallace and King had been held in solitary confinement. They soon became known as the Angola 3.
While King was offered a plea deal and released in 2001 after 29 years in solitary, Wallace spent nearly 42 years in lockdown before a district judge overturned his sentence and ordered his release in October. He was reindicted the next day, but died three days later of advanced liver cancer.
Woodfox is the only member of the Angola 3 still behind bars. He has been kept in solitary, what the state calls "closed-cell restriction" for 42 years, a practice criticized by Amnesty International and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, who called it unacceptable under international human rights law.
Woodfox's 1974 murder conviction was first overturned in 1992 by a state court due to "systemic discrimination." He was then reindicted in 1993 by a new grand jury and reconvicted five years later.
But District Court Judge James J. Brady overturned this second conviction in 2008, stating Woodfox's defense counsel was ineffective. The state appealed, and the case made its way for the first time to the 5th Circuit.
Once there, the court reversed Brady's ruling and determined that while his trial "was not perfect," Woodfox couldn't prove there would have been a different outcome with different counsel.
Woodfox's attorneys then focused in on the discrimination issue, arguing there were also issues with the 1993 indictment because black grand jury foreman were woefully underrepresented in West Feliciana Parish in the previous 13 years.
Brady again agreed, overturning Woodfox's conviction a second time in May 2012. The case was kicked up to the 5th Circuit after the state appealed. While the outcome for Woodfox's counsel in previous years has not been especially successful, the team remained hopeful ahead of Tuesday's hearing.
"The case (has) a tremendous, extraordinary history to it and one that Albert has always maintained his innocence," said George Kendall, a member of Woodfox's legal team. "The law is very solidly in our corner."
Oral arguments will be heard at 9 a.m. in Room 209 of the John Minor Wisdom United States Court of Appeals Building at 600 Camp Street.Each side will be limited to 20 minutes for oral argument. Read the appellate brief filed by the state of Louisiana by clicking here. Read the appellate brief for Albert Woodfox by clicking here.
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Lauren McGaughy is a state politics reporter based in Baton Rouge. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @lmcgaughy.
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