After 36 Years in Solitary, Prisoner's Conviction Could Be Overturned

A judge wants an ex-Black Panther's murder conviction tossed; state disagrees.

June 27, 2008 — -- An ongoing legal battle in Louisiana could result in the overturning of a murder conviction that sent a prisoner there to solitary confinement for 36 years. A judge recently recommended that the murder conviction of former Black Panther Albert Woodfox, now 61, be overturned. The State of Louisiana disagrees.

In her report, Magistrate Judge Christine Noland said that Woodfox's attorneys were ineffective and had been unable to cross-examine the state's lead witness "regarding the promises made to him in exchange for his testimony because such information was still being suppressed by the State at the time of the 1973 trial."

Earlier this week, the State of Louisiana filed an objection denying allegations that it suppressed information that would have discredited its lead witness, a convicted rapist imprisoned at the time, and that Woodfox's attorneys at his second trial in 1998 failed to raise crucial objections.

"It's significant to me that two juries 27 years apart heard this information and convicted [Woodfox] of murder," said John W. Sinquefield, the original trial prosecutor who is now Louisiana's first assistant attorney general. "The case should not be reversed."

Woodfox, who became known as one of the Angola Three when it was revealed that he and two other inmates were segregated for over three decades at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, had argued that the state should have revealed that Hezekiah Brown had been rewarded for his testimony.

Brown testified that he saw Woodfox and three other inmates murder prison guard Brent Miller. At the time, Brown was serving a life term without parole after being taken off death row, according to court documents.

But other documents from the prison's record office, and obtained by ABC News, show that after the trial, the prison's warden began campaigning for a pardon for Brown and authorized the use of prison dollars to pay for an advertisement urging his clemency. (click here to see the Warden's letter)

And in another letter, the warden makes a request that Brown be delivered a carton of cigarettes every week to "partially fulfill commitments made to him in the past with respect to his testimony." (click here to see the Warden's letter)

Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards granted Brown's pardon in 1986.

"We don't know what the investigators and the wardens did share [with the prosecution]," said Woodfox's attorney Nick Trenticosta, who had declared the Jun. 10 opinion a major victory after years of working to get his conviction thrown out. 'But under the law, the prosecutors are obligated to find out the information."

The state had ten days to file its objection, and filed it with just hours remaining earlier this week. Its report countered that Brown's treatment did not factor in his testimony and that "nothing was suppressed by the state in 1973."

Woodfox was serving a 50-year sentence for armed robbery when the murder occurred within prison walls. He alleges that he was framed by prison officials because he was a Black Panther and was advocating for prison reform.

A federal district judge is slated to make a decision in the case in the next few months.

Megan Chuchmach is a 2008 Carnegie Fellow at ABC News in New York. She recently graduated from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

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