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Albert Woodfox met with supporters in New Orleans, La. on Feb. 19, the day he was released from Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
Q&A

‘I’ll Believe It When I See It.’

After 42 years in solitary, Albert Woodfox walks free.

When a dazed Albert Woodfox walked out of a Louisiana prison Friday, on his 69th birthday, it ended one of the most riveting chapters in the modern history of American penology. The last remaining member of the so-called “Angola 3” to remain imprisoned, Woodfox had spent nearly 42 years in solitary confinement—the longest period experts can recall— after he was convicted of murdering a white prison guard in 1972 at the notorious Louisiana state penitentiary at Angola.

Woodfox always maintained his innocence, claiming for decades that he was set up by prison officials because he belonged to the Black Panther Party and was organizing fellow inmates to protest their conditions of confinement. Prison officials and generations of prosecutors told another story; that Woodfox and two other black inmates ambushed a young guard, Brent Miller. There was no physical evidence linking them to the confined crime scene and a bloody fingerprint near the victim did not match any of them, but twice jurors convicted Woodfox. And twice his conviction was reversed on appeal.

Over the decades, Woodfox’s years in isolation and the countless twists and turns of his legal case generated global interest; he became a symbol of the pain of solitary confinement. The victim’s widow became convinced of Woodfox’s innocence. With all the primary witnesses now dead as a third trial loomed, and with yet another appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court pending, Louisiana officials and Woodfox’s defense team at last were able to settle the case. He pleaded “no contest” to two lesser crimes and walked into the first day of the rest of his life.

Woodfox spoke over the weekend with several reporters, including The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington, with whom he shared some dramatic memories of life alone in a tiny cell. In the meantime, Woodfox’s team of lawyers took a moment to appreciate the successful end to a long fight. On Saturday The Marshall Project’s Andrew Cohen spoke with George H. Kendall, the veteran capital defense attorney who was part of Woodfox’s legal team. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Marshall Project: How did the deal come about? Why is Albert Woodfox free today?

George H. Kendall: This case had gone on for too long. Both the state and the defense faced enormous difficulties in presenting their cases. All the key witnesses on each side of the case are deceased. Attempting to try, for the third time, a case 43 years after the crime raises very unusual and unique legal issues which no one really knows the answer to. And the state had spent a great deal of money on this case over the years.

You put this together with the election of a new attorney general—Jeff Landry— who did what anyone would do. He came into office and wanted to know about all their commitments and took a fresh look at this and said: Let’s see if there is common ground here to settle this. Over the years there had been discussions about settlement. The important thing was, on the state’s side of the aisle, there was a team willing to take a fresh look at this…. There are things about the deal the state doesn’t like. There are things about the deal we don’t like…

TMP: When did you tell your client?

GHK: Albert was apprised of the negotiations step by step. He is someone who does not leave his case to his lawyers.

TMP: But when did you call him up and tell him, “Albert, you are going free.”

GHK: Well, if we had told him that he would not have believed it. Because there have been other times in this case where he was very close to walking out the door and it didn’t happen. So we were very careful to say, “Look, we are heading in the direction of settlement but don’t get your hopes up.” Because we had done this before and you don’t want to get your client excited about something and then it doesn’t pan out. That is not a good thing to do with somebody incarcerated. It was probably at the beginning of this week when we finally said we believe it is going to happen.

TMP: What was his reaction?

GHK: I think, raised eyebrows, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” It was like “I hear what you are saying” but let’s see if this is still the case tomorrow.

TMP: News reports say he has Hepatitis C and other ailments. What is his medical condition and what is his prognosis?

GHK: The honest answer is we don’t know, the quality of medical care in prison being what it is. We know that he has a number of conditions that are not uncommon for somebody his age and we also know that they have not been treated. What we don’t know is where on the spectrum; we are going to get a lot of answers in the next week. He has issues with his kidneys, he has issues with his heart, he has high blood pressure. He’s had Hepatitis C for 30 years, which is a long time to have Hepatitis C. There are probably a few others. We has been gravely concerned about his health for years.

TMP: What was his first night like? What are his immediate plans?

GHK: There is a tradition in many states, and one that is taken very seriously in Louisiana to the credit of the Louisiana Department of Corrections, is that if your parent dies while you are incarcerated you go to the funeral. He was not allowed to go to his mother’s funeral. And if there was one event that came the closest to breaking him it was that so he made it very clear that the first place he was going, if he ever got out, was to say goodbye to his mother at her burial site.

As it turns out, when he left the jail yesterday, he thanked a couple of dozen supporters, and then he got into the car with his brother, who is really a terrific human being who has visited Albert for more than 30 years, coming from long distances every month. Their destination was to go to the gravesite and to see other family members who he had not seen for a long time. Disappointing for him, when he got to the cemetery, it was closed. So he went today, he’s there now (Saturday). And he’s had a nice reunion. It was a very good day.

TMP: So much has been written, especially lately, about the mental deterioration that takes place for those who spent long periods in isolated detention. What care will Albert Woodfox receive to help him cope with his reentry into the world of people and choices?

GHK: One of the things about spending time in solitary is that it is often the case that you do not know what effect you can experience until you get out. We are going to watch him very closely. There are professionals who are going to help us. Albert is aware that he is likely going to face some of these issues and he will deal with them as he did when he was locked up, as best he can.

TMP: Does this deal permit him to now seek compensation from Louisiana for a wrongful conviction? This is not a formal exoneration, is it?

GHK: No, it is not a formal exoneration. We know from the tragic Glenn Ford story that Louisiana takes a very narrow view of who is exonerated and who is not. There will not be an effort to seek from various state boards any compensation.

TMP: Prosecutors relied at both trials on the testimony of a fellow inmate, right? And that inmate later was found to have received benefits from prison officials that were not disclosed at the first trial, right? Was there any other evidence linking Woodfox to the murder of Brent Miller, the prison guard killed in 1972?

GHK: This is a pure ID case by one individual, who would not be believed in any other context and I think was only believed at the first trial because all of this massive amount of impeachment evidence, which any lawyer would have used to destroy his credibility, was suppressed [by the trial judge] and not heard. And when it was heard at the second trial the witness could not be confronted [by defense attorneys] because he was dead.

And the state in that second trial, using a tactic I’ve have never seen before or since, and that greatly upset the judges who reviewed this case, called the prosecutor from the first trial to talk about what a great, credible witness the guy was. Had there been a third trial, one of the arguments we made, one of our arguments was that none of this evidence should be heard.

TMP: Woodfox was not a saint. He was in prison in the first place for armed robbery and escape. Based on what you know about this case, do you think he and Herman Wallace were framed for the murder because they were members of the Black Panther Party?

GHK: If you go back and look at what was going on at Angola at the time of this crime it is easy to reach that conclusion. Let me cite two significant points. First, in April 1972, this was a segregated institution that was vastly understaffed; where sexual slavery to a large degree ran the prison. Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace and others who identified themselves as Black Panthers were seen as threats by the all-white correctional staff.

Second, and maybe even more critically, is that for the first time in Angola’s history there were two outsiders, corrections professionals not from Louisiana, the warden and the deputy warden, in charge at Angola. There were administrators just below those ranks who were deeply resentful, who were from Louisiana, whose parents had worked at Angola, who were deeply resentful that they were not the warden. There was a lot of evidence in the record that the head of security at the time, who was very racist, used the Brent Miller murder to try to discredit the warden and the deputy warden so that they would be relieved and he would be the warden.

There are many reasons, many factors that influenced this investigation that threw it off base and led to an unreliable result.

TMP: The reason Woodfox spent all those decades in solitary was because Louisiana couldn’t execute him, the death penalty was off the table at the time of the initial murder trial. Is there any doubt in your mind that Woodfox would long ago have been executed had he been given a death sentence despite all the doubt about the evidence against him?

GHK: When he was thrown into lockdown a day after that homicide he was told “you are going to stay here until we execute you.” That was April 1972, three months before Furman1 came down. But Louisiana was a state that ruled, as a matter of state law, that when the new death penalty statute was passed that it could not apply to the old cases. In some states those new statutes did apply to old cases but not Louisiana.

TMP: Do you think all this could again happen today or do you think the environment at Angola in 1972, the tension between black inmates and white guards, uniquely contributed not just to what happened to Miller but also how prison officials and prosecutors reacted to Woodfox?

GHK: There were circumstances in Angola in 1972 that mercifully for everyone, inmates and staff, don’t exist. At the same time there is far too little oversight and scrutiny of corrections centers by the courts. That’s one reason why [U.S. Supreme Court] Justice [Anthony] Kennedy issued that very special opinion2 last term when he called on the courts and the legal profession to not avert their eyes and to become engaged with prisoners and the issues they have and with prison reform. There has been far too little of that for decades.