After more than 4 decades in solitary confinement, claiming he had an unjust murder conviction, Louisiana inmate Herman Wallace is now free.  However, he is terminally ill with cancer.  He was released after a judge vacated his murder conviction and sentence.

Wallace, 71, is one of the Angola 3, three inmates who tried to expose injustices at Louisiana State Penitentiary during the 1960s and 1970s.

“…[T]here was an unfair trial for 41 years and finally we have that ruling,” attorney Nick Trenticosta told CNN on Tuesday, “For him to pass on from this world with friends and family at his side is extremely important.”

The release came just a few hours after U.S. District Chief Judge Brian Jackson said that women were systematically excluded in violation of law from Wallace’s grand jury in the 1970s.  Wallace had been charged with the murder of a guard at Angola Prison.  Jackson didn’t address the other appellate issues, including false testimony, prosecutorial misconduct, and the withholding of exculpatory evidence.

“The record in this case makes clear that Mr. Wallace’s grand jury was improperly chosen in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of ‘the equal protection of the laws’…and that the Louisiana courts, when presented with the opportunity to correct this error, failed to do so,” Jackson wrote.

“Our Constitution requires this result even where, as here, it means overturning Mr. Wallace’s conviction nearly forty years after it was entered.”

A lawyer for Wallace said the decision gives his client “some measure of justice after a lifetime of injustice…”

District Attorney Hillar Moore’s office immediately filed an appeal asking that the terminally ill Wallace not be released until after the appeal was heard.  The judge, in a strongly worded order, repeated his demand that Wallace be immediately released and said that prosecutors failed to show how Wallace would be a flight-risk or a public danger.  He threatened prosecutors and prison officials with contempt.  Prosecutors have 30 days to notify Wallace whether they intend to seek a new indictment.

“Tonight, Herman Wallace has left the walls of Louisiana prisons and will be able to receive the medical care that his advanced liver cancer requires,” Wallace’s attorneys said in a statement. “It took the order of a federal judge to address the clear constitutional violations present in Mr. Wallace’s 1974 trial and grant him relief. The state of Louisiana has had many opportunities to address this injustice and has repeatedly…utterly failed to do so.”

The Louisiana State Penitentiary is known as Angola, named for the land it sits on.  The area used to be a plantation named for the place where the slaves who worked it originated.  Angola is known as the “bloodiest prison in the South.”  Most consider the abuses that Angola is known for as a thing of the past, but evidence suggests otherwise.  Just this year, two death row inmates testified that they were subjected to “indescribable” heat.  The testimony is part of a lawsuit against the prison for placing inmates with health conditions at increased risk.  U.S. Congressman filed a complaint recently alleging inmates are being kept in solitary confinement for unreasonable and unconscionable amounts of time.

Wallace was held in solitary confinement for 40 years until he was diagnosed with liver cancer and had to be moved.

The Angola 3 are the three prison inmates Wallace (now released to a hospice), Robert King (Wilkerson) (released a few years ago), and Albert Woodfox (still imprisoned despite his conviction being overturned three times) who were put in solitary confinement at Angola after the 1972 murder of a prison guard.  The three men were convicted of armed robbery in 1971 and sent to Angola.  Woodfox escaped during his sentencing at the courthouse and traveled to New York where he encountered the Black Panther Party before being recaptured.  The three joined the prison chapter of the Panthers.  Wallace and Woodfox were particularly interested in improving prison conditions and decreasing inmate and guard violence.  They helped organize hunger strikes to protest segregation and systemic rape and beatings.

Woodfox and Wallace were convicted of the 1972 stabbing death of 23-year-old guard Brent Miller.  No physical evidence linked them to the crime and the crime scene was not properly processed.  Amnesty International believes that potentially exculpatory DNA was lost.  Main eyewitnesses have all been discredited.  All three men were placed in solitary confinement until law student, Scott Fleming, and former Panther member, Malik Rahim, discovered their predicament in 1997.  They investigated the case and raised doubt and questions about the original trials.

“Mr. Wallace has fought his unconstitutional conviction for decades and is supported by four alibi witnesses who place him in another part of the prison when the tragic murder occurred,” his lawyers said Tuesday.

Robert King was released after 29 years in solitary confinement after his first conviction was overturned and he pled guilty to a lesser charge (conspiracy to commit murder) in the death of an inmate.  In 2008, Woodfox and Wallace were both moved from solitary confinement to maximum security.  Albert Woodfox had two appeals (2008 and 2010), which both resulted in his conviction being overturned and him being granted habeas corpus (based on racial discrimination, prosecutorial misconduct, and ineffective assistance of counsel).  Immediately after the first appeal, both men were moved back into solitary confinement.  In 2009, Wallace was taken with 15 other inmates to Hunt Correctional Center where a new closed isolation tier was created.  In 2010, Woodfox was moved to David Wade Correctional Center, seven hours from his family and supporters and his phone and visiting rights were taken away.  In 2013, a federal Judge overturned Woodfox’s conviction for a third time, however Attorney General James Caldwell plans to fully appeal the decision.  He stated that if the more conservative Fifth Circuit didn’t keep Woodfox in prison then they would retry him.

Since his release, King has tried to build recognition for the Angola 3 and spoken out about political prisoners.  They are on Amnesty International’s list of ‘political prisoners/prisoners of conscience’.  The three men were the subjects of two documentaries:  3 Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation (2006) and In the Land of the Free (2010), which includes an interview with Miller’s widow who believes the men are innocent.

Many people support the release of all of the Angola 3, but some people do not.  Louisiana’s AG Caldwell said that he opposes their release, “with every fiber of my being.”  He also denied that the men were in solitary confinement ever, he instead said they were held in “protective cell units”.  The Warden of Angola and Hunt, Burl Cain, also opposes their release and says that Woodfox and Wallace should be held in solitary regardless of crimes because they ascribe to “Black Pantherism”.

Amnesty International released a message before Wallace’s release calling for humanitarian release, sometimes called compassionate release:

“Wallace [is] 71 years old and has advanced liver cancer. After decades of cruel conditions and a conviction that continues to be challenged by the courts, he should be released immediately to his family so that he can be cared for humanely during his last months.”

Herman Wallace lived in solitary confinement for 40 years or 14,600 days in a 6 ft x 9 ft x 12 ft rectangle for 23 hours out of every day.  The Angola 3 has a pending civil suit ‘Wilkerson, Wallace and Woodfox’ vs. the State of Louisiana, which the United States Supreme Court ruled has merit to proceed to trial based on the fact that their 30+ years in solitary confinement is “inhumane and unconstitutional”. The outcome of this landmark civil case could eliminate long-term solitary confinement in the U.S.  Wallace’s attorneys said that he was happy, but extremely ill and has requested that they continue the lawsuit after his death.

“It is Mr. Wallace’s hope that this litigation will help ensure that others, including his lifelong friend and fellow ‘Angola 3’ member, Albert Woodfox, (still in prison) do not continue to suffer such cruel and unusual confinement even after Mr. Wallace is gone,” his legal team said in a written statement.

Wallace will be going to a hospice.  His chemotherapy treatments were not effective and were suspended.  His cancer had not been caught early enough.  He was only tested for illness after he lost 50 pounds.

“Tragically, this step toward justice has come as Herman is dying from cancer with only days or hours left to live. No ruling can erase the cruel, inhuman and degrading prison conditions he endured for more than 41 years,” Amnesty said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, asked authorities not to appeal the ruling:

“We hope that they will see reason…and allow Herman Wallace the chance to spend his final days outside of the confinement he has endured for more than 40 years,” the group said in a statement.

The men believe they were targeted for Miller’s murder because they established a Black Panther Party chapter inside the prison, set up demonstrations, and organized strikes demanding better treatment and conditions.

FURTHER READING:  Angola Support Website

  1. Lon Spector says:

    We can only hope that there’s such a thing as justice beyond this life.


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