NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The last of the “Angola Three” inmates, whose decades in solitary confinement in connection with the death of a prison guard drew international condemnation and became the subject of two documentaries, was ordered released Monday.
The ruling would free 68-year-old Albert Woodfox after more than 40 years in solitary, which human rights experts have said constitutes torture.
U.S. District Judge James Brady of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, ordered the release of Woodfox and took the extraordinary step of barring Louisiana prosecutors from trying him for a third time.
A spokesman for the Louisiana attorney general said the state would appeal Brady’s ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals “to make sure this murderer stays in prison and remains fully accountable for his actions.”
Woodfox was placed in solitary confinement in 1972 after being charged in the death of a Louisiana State Penitentiary guard in April of that year.
Woodfox has been tried twice in the guard’s death, but both convictions were overturned. The state is seeking to bring him to trial a third time. But Brady said a third trial could not be fair.
In making his rare ruling, Brady said the “exceptional circumstances” of the case had led him to bar the state from seeking a third trial. In his ruling, he cited a “lack of confidence” that Louisiana “to provide a fair third trial”; the inmate’s age and poor health; the unavailability of witnesses; “the prejudice done onto Mr. Woodfox by spending over forty-years in solitary confinement,” and “the very fact that Mr. Woodfox has already been tried twice.”
Woodfox is in solitary confinement at a prison in St. Francisville, Louisiana, awaiting trial.
His lawyers were headed there Monday to seek his release.
“We are thrilled that justice has come for our innocent friend,” said Tory Pegram of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3, who is working with Woodfox’s lawyers on his release.
At the same time, though, state prosecutors were working to keep Woodfox in prison.
Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for Louisiana’s Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, said the state was seeking an emergency stay of Brady’s ruling from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
“With today’s order, the court would see fit to set free a twice-convicted murderer,” said Sadler. “This order arbitrarily sets aside jury decisions and gives a free pass to a murderer based on faulty procedural issues.”
Woodfox and two other state prisoners became known as the Angola Three due to their long stretches in solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
Other members of the Angola Three were prisoners Robert King and Herman Wallace. Woodfox and Wallace had said they were singled out for harsh treatment, including isolation, because of their political activism.
Wallace, convicted with Woodfox of murder in the death of guard Brent Miller, died last fall only days after a judge freed him and granted him a new trial. King was released in 2001 after his conviction in the death of a fellow inmate in 1973 was reversed.