Last imprisoned Angola 3 inmate to remain behind bars as Louisiana appeals release order

An undated picture released on June 10, 2015 by Amnesty International in Paris, shows Albert Woodfox, 68, who, after enduring more than four decades in solitary confinement and lengthy court battles to prove his innocence, was told on June 10, 2015, by a US appeal court he must wait a little longer in jail.  (AFP PHOTO / HO / AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL)
A federal appeals court ruled the last remaining incarcerated member of the ‘Angola 3’ must remain behind bars, while Louisiana appeals a previous ruling that it must release Albert Woodfox. The court did grant the 68-year-old inmate an expedited hearing.

The US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals initially issued an emergency stay of Woodfox’s release on Tuesday, a day after US District Judge James Brady issued an unconditional writ of habeas corpus ordering Louisiana to release the inmate, who has spent 43 years in solitary, arguably the longest term of such confinement.

On Friday, the Fifth Circuit granted Louisiana an extension of the stay while the state appeals Brady’s order.

The 'Angola 3' ‒ Albert Woodfox, Robert King and Herman Wallace ‒ were inmates accused of murdering a guard at Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola Prison, during a prison riot in 1972. Though they maintained their innocence, the three men were convicted of murder and spent decades in solitary confinement. Woodfox and Wallace insisted that they were implicated solely for their involvement in a prison chapter of the Black Panthers.

Brady cited five main reasons in his ruling to release Woodfox from prison.

"The five factors include: Mr. Woodfox's age and poor health, his limited ability to present a defense at a third trial in light of the unavailability of witnesses, this Court's lack of confidence in the State to provide a fair third trial, the prejudice done onto Mr. Woodfox by spending over forty-years in solitary confinement, and finally the very fact that Mr. Woodfox has already been tried twice and would otherwise face his third trial for a crime that occurred over forty years ago," he wrote.

The Fifth Circuit eschewed Brady’s reasonings, and focused its analysis on whether “the district court abused its discretion by ordering Woodfox’s unconditional release and prohibiting retrial,” the three-judge panel wrote.

The main points the justices looked at before deciding to extend the stay were whether the applicant has made a strong showing that he is likely to succeed on the merits of his case, whether the applicant will be irreparably injured absent a stay, whether issuing a stay will substantially injure the other parties involved, and where public interest lies.

“The state has a strong interest in continuing custody of Woodfox and reprosecuting him for that murder ‒ a crime for which he was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. The constitutional claim for which he was awarded habeas relief is readily capable of being remedied by a new indictment and trial,” the justice wrote. The state “has made a strong showing that it is likely to succeed on the merits.”

The justices also acknowledged that “the interest of a successful habeas petitioner in being released pending appeal is ‘always substantial’,” but added that “the remaining factors favor the state.”

“As for the state’s irreparable injury and the public interest, there is a substantial interest in staying the release of a person, twice convicted of murder, from being released from a life sentence without the possibility of parole,” the Fifth Circuit said.

Woodfox was disappointed that his potential release was stalled, one of his lawyers, Carine Williams told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. However, she added, "of course he was hopeful."

"We are so sorry that did not happen today," Williams told reporters outside of the gate of St. Francisville facility, where Woodfox has been housed since February.

Williams and Woodfox’s other attorney George Kendall said in a joint statement that they’re confident that the Fifth Circuit "will ultimately find that the district court's ruling is sound, well-reasoned, and based on well-established law."

"This is the rare, exceptional instance in which it is appropriate for the federal court to step in and prevent the state from attempting to mount an unfair trial," Woodfox's lawyers continued. "Furthermore, there is no penological justification for the harsh conditions under which Mr. Woodfox has been held for over four decades."

The International Coalition to Free the Angola 3, a group dedicated to Woodfox’s ultimate release, expressed disappointment and home.

“Though we are disappointed our friend will not be released today, we remain confident that the truth of his innocence and integrity of his struggle for justice will ultimately free him, sooner rather than later, and will continue to shed light on the dire situation faced by thousands left in solitary for decades for no legitimate reason,” the group said in a blog post.

Louisiana’s Attorney General James D. “Buddy” Caldwell, who had immediately filed an appeal against Brady’s ruling, applauded the Fifth Circuit’s decision, according to a spokesman.

“We are pleased with the court’s decision that this inmate should remain in custody as the state pursues its appeal,”Aaron Sadler, a spokseman for Caldwell, wrote in an email to the Washington Post. “It has always been the state’s priority to ensure justice for the brutal slaying of Brent Miller and to hold accountable this murderer who has an extensive history of violent crimes.”

Oral arguments in Louisiana’s appeal of Brady’s ruling are set for the week of August 31, in accordance with the Fifth Circuit’s requirement of an expedited briefing schedule.