Murder Conviction Overturned After 36 Years in Solitary

Judge tosses the murder conviction of former Black Panther Albert Woodfox.

March 12, 2009, 5:00 PM

July 9, 2008— -- A man who spent 36 years in solitary confinement for killing a prison guard is one step closer to freedom after a federal judge overturned his murder conviction late Tuesday. The Louisiana Attorney General plans to appeal.

"We are currently reviewing the ruling by the federal district court and are taking the steps necessary to perfect our appeal of the matter to the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Since this is a matter in litigation, we will not comment further on the specifics of this case," said Attorney General James D. "Buddy" Caldwell Wednesday.

Woodfox's lawyers are calling for the state not to pursue an appeal and to release Woodfox immediately.

"The state has already stolen nearly four decades of Albert Woodfox's life," said lead attorney Nick Trenticosta. "The injustice in this case is unfathomable. How can Louisiana continue to imprison a 61 year-old man after a federal judge has ruled that he shouldn't have been convicted in the first place?"

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) released a statement following the ruling commending the court's ruling, saying it "has taken the appropriate steps to right a terrible wrong and overturn the conviction of Albert Woodfox."

U.S. District Judge James Brady said yesterday in overturning the conviction that Woodfox's attorneys failed to object to testimony by a state prosecutor at his second trial, after his first conviction for killing prison guard Brent Miller was thrown out.

In 1998, John W. Sinquefield, the prosecutor at the original trial in 1973, testified about the character of the state's lead witness, who had died between trials. Woodfox's attorneys didn't always object.

"For this reason, among others," Brady said, "the magistrate judge was correct in finding the Plaintiff's counsel deficient." The judge in the Federal Court in the Middle District of Louisiana also said the state's objection referenced records that had not been entered into court.

"This court refuses to entertain a claim based on alleged evidence not in the provided record," Brady said.

Woodfox's current lawyers had previously argued that prosecutors had not turned over evidence to his trial attorneys.

Last month, Magistrate Judge Christine Noland recommended the conviction be overturned, saying 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."

The State of Louisiana filed an objection denying that Woodfox's attorneys at his second trial failed to raise crucial objections as well as allegations that it suppressed information.

Woodfox's case attracted widespread attention after he became known as one of the Angola Three for being segregated for over three decades at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Woodfox and Herman Wallace, who was convicted of murdering the same prison guard, were let out of solitary confinement in March. Wallace is currently appealing his murder conviction. The third member, Robert King, was released from prison in 2001.

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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