A federal judge has once again ordered the state of Louisiana to release Albert Woodfox, a former Black Panther who has spent more than 40 years in solitary confinement. Woodfox and Herman Wallace, another prisoner of the "Angola 3," were convicted of murdering a guard at Angola Prison. The Angola 3 and their supporters say they were framed for their political activism. On Tuesday, the same federal judge that ordered Woodfox’s release in 2008 again ruled Woodfox should be set free on the basis of racial discrimination in his retrial. It was the third time Woodfox’s conviction has been overturned, but prosecutors successfully reversed the two previous victories. The state is expected to appeal once again to keep Woodfox behind bars. We’re joined by two guests: Robert King, the third member of the Angola 3, who was freed in 2001 after three decades behind bars; and Mwalimu Johnson, a longtime member of the Angola 3 support team. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the case of Albert Woodfox, who has been in solitary confinement for 40 years. That’s right, 40 years, most of that time locked up in the notorious maximum security Louisiana state penitentiary known as Angola. This week, after his lawyers spent six years arguing that racial bias tainted the grand jury selection in Woodfox’s prosecution, federal Judge James Brady agreed. This is the third time his conviction has been overturned. Nevertheless, Woodfox remains imprisoned. Those close to the case expect the state of Louisiana, under the direction of Attorney General James "Buddy" Caldwell, to appeal again, as the state has successfully done in the past, seeking to keep Woodfox in solitary confinement, in conditions that Amnesty International describes as cruel, inhuman and degrading.
AMY GOODMAN: Albert Woodfox is one of the Angola 3. Angola, the sprawling prison complex with 5,000 inmates and 1,800 employees, is in rural Louisiana on the site of a former slave plantation, getting its name from the African country of origin of many of those slaves. It still exists as a forced-labor camp.
Woodfox and fellow prisoner Herman Wallace were in Angola for lesser crimes when implicated in the prison murder of a guard in 1972. Woodfox and Wallace founded the Angola chapter of the Black Panther Party in ’71 and were engaged in organizing against segregation, inhumane working conditions, systemic rape and sexual slavery inflicted on many imprisoned at Angola.
This is a clip of Albert Woodfox speaking, in his own words, on a prison payphone in the new documentary, In the Land of the Free.
ALBERT WOODFOX: If a cause is noble enough, you can carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. And I thought that my cause, then and now, was noble, so therefore, they could never break me. They might bend me a little bit. They may cause me a lot of pain. They may even take my life. But they will never be able to break me.
AMY GOODMAN: Albert Woodfox in prison.
For more on this major new development in Albert Woodfox’s case, we’re joined by Robert King, the only freed member of the so-called Angola 3. Robert King spent 29 years in solitary confinement for a murder he did not commit. He was released in 2001 after his conviction was overturned. He has written a book about his own experience called From the Bottom of the Heap: The Autobiography of Black Panther Robert Hillary King. He’s featured in several films, from The Angola 3: Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation to a brand new film about his life called Hard Time.
Robert King, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the significance of the judge ruling, now for the third time, overturning the conviction of Albert Woodfox and saying he should be free?
ROBERT KING: Yes. Thank you, Amy. I would like to speak on the significance of the ruling. The ruling indicates that, as has been pointed out, this case has been overturned three times, two times by a federal judge and by Brady, Judge Brady, and once by the state. And the significance is that there was a flawed conviction. The courts feel this, both state and federal. And as a result of this, you see this replication of his case being overturned by different judges at different times. And the significance at this time, hopefully, is that this is after—actually, it’s going on 41 years. April 17 will be 41 years. And we’re hoping that this will be the end of this harassment by the state of Louisiana with regards to Herman and Albert, especially Albert Woodfox, in this case.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mwalimu Johnson, I’d like to bring you in, and also if you could talk about—oh, I’m sorry, we don’t have him ready yet.
MWALIMU JOHNSON: I can hear you. I can hear you.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Can you hear me?
MWALIMU JOHNSON: Yes, I can hear you.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: OK. Well, the nearest town to Angola is St. Francisville. That’s where Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace were committed for trial by a grand jury in May of 1972. At the time, the local population was still grieving the murder of prison guard Brent Miller. This is a clip from the documentary In the Land of the Free of Herman Wallace’s sister, Vikki Wallace, describing that moment.
VIKKI WALLACE: We went to court. That’s when Herman asked the judge, "Can I ask you a question?" He said, "Yes." He said, "Where the black people is?" I was curious myself. It was a all-white jury. Not one black person was on it. So, the judge told him, "Get him out of here. Get him out." I stood up. I said, "Listen at this." And Herman, when he was pulling him, he had his hand "peace" and "power." He said, "Take care, Vikki." I said, "OK."
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now I want to play a clip, as well, of Teenie Verret, the widow of the murdered prison guard. She was just 17 when her husband, Brent Miller, was stabbed to death in 1972. This is Teenie Verret from the documentary In the Land of the Free.
TEENIE VERRET: I’ve been living this for 36 years. There’s not a year that goes by that I don’t have to relive this. And it just keeps going and going. And then these men, I mean, if they did not do this—and I believe that they didn’t—they have been living a nightmare for 36 years.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I think we now have Mwalimu Johnson, a longtime member of the Angola 3 support team and the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3.
Welcome to Democracy Now! I’d like to ask you first your reaction to the court decision, and also if you could tell us a little bit about the specifics as to why the judge decided to overturn the conviction again.
MWALIMU JOHNSON: Well, my immediate reaction was not one of surprise, because for years federal Judge Brady in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, made it clear that he intended to respect the law. And the state has opposed everything that the defense has presented, in spite of the fact that there’s no tangible evidence to connect these men with the murder. And the attorney general of Louisiana has taken this personally, and he’s concerned about his political career, so I expect some type of reaction from his office, whatever that might be. Hopefully, it won’t take long to correct the problem.
But the legal aspect of it is that, initially, the state claimed that the jury foreman had been picked in accordance with law, there was no racial discrimination. But all the evidence and documentation clearly reflects that there was in fact racial discrimination involved in selecting the jury foreperson. And the state brought in statisticians during the evidentiary hearing, and the defense brought in expert statisticians and others in response to the state.
And evidently, Judge Brady accepted the defense’s argument, because he did give a favorable ruling, which, as King stated, was the third favorable ruling that Albert Woodfox has received. This is the third time that his conviction has been reversed. So it’s clear that it’s not a question of law; it’s a question of who can sway the general public. And we’re in a racist society, in general, and particularly here in the judicial system in Louisiana. So, this was more or less tantamount to a legal lynching.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip of Albert Woodfox speaking from prison on a telephone line. This is a recording that was also featured in the documentary, In the Land of the Free.
ALBERT WOODFOX: Our primary objective is that front gate. That is what we are struggling for, and we are actually fighting for our freedom. We are fighting for people to understand that we were framed—
OPERATOR: This call originates from a Louisiana correctional facility and may be recorded or monitored.
ALBERT WOODFOX: That we were framed for a murder that we are totally and completely and actually innocent of.
OPERATOR: You have 15 seconds left on this call.
ALBERT WOODFOX: Let me call you back.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Albert Woodfox in prison. He’s been in solitary for nearly 40 years. Three times, the case has—his case has been overturned, but he remains in prison. Robert King, the previous attorney general of Louisiana was the prosecutor in the case, is that right? How is it possible that Albert Woodfox and actually Herman Wallace, two of the Angola 3—you’re the third—have spent almost 40 years in solitary? You were there for what? Almost 30 years. Describe what it’s like.
ROBERT KING: Well, being in solitary confinement is—Amy, it’s dehumanizing. It is awesome—it is awful. You are locked in a cell 23 hours a day, sometimes 24. Or you’re in a six-by-nine-by-12. That was my experience. Everywhere you went, you went shackled, you went handcuffed. Of course, the law may have decreed or the codes may have decreed or the administration may have decreed that you get an hour on the tier. This wasn’t set in stone. A lot of time, you did not even get an hour out of your cell. You was there in your cell for 24 hours, because if they declared a security day, they wanted to come through and shake down and harass a lot of people. They came through, and they just abolished that day for yard or foot [inaudible] and anyone taking a shower. So, it was—you was in the cell. You was fed, you know, under a door. You know, there were food slots. They would put the food in the slot sometime. They would still. We had protests against their putting our food trays on the floor. And they cut the slots, but nevertheless, sometime they would still come by, even after the slots were cut.
So you lived in an environment that considered you subhuman. You were in Angola at that time, and you were considered the worst of the worst, despite the fact that all evidence of the fact that you were there legally, the fact that there were other evidence that may point to your innocence, it doesn’t matter. You are treated like you are inhuman, and you’re treated like a slave, in Angola, and especially if you’re in solitary confinement. So, solitary confinement was not a beautiful thing at all. I saw people come in in that environment, you know, openly outspoken, and I saw them after a few moments, they become subdued. They withdraw themselves. They go into some type of regression. And then they are subjected to the worst of the worst, because then there is a misinterpretation of what is happening with this particular prisoner, that this prisoner needs to be doped up with some type of psychotropic drugs. And this is what—this is what is happening. A lot of people that end up in solitary confinement also end up on the psychiatric ward in Angola or some other institution that they might send them to.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert King, you all three were members of the Black Panther Party. It wasn’t a year later that Wallace and Woodfox were convicted of killing a prison guard. You hear even Teenie Verret, the widow of the guard, questioning whether in fact they were guilty. The significance of what you did within the prison, the organizing as a Black Panther?
ROBERT KING: Well, we think that’s because—you know, I entered the prison some months after Herman and Albert, and they placed me in solitary confinement, the same area in which they had placed Albert and Herman. And we felt the need to organize because, after all, we considered ourselves victims, not helpless victims, but we were victims. And we understood that the reason why we were being prosecuted or persecuted—and I know this is the reason why I was being placed in a cell, because I was a member of the Black Panther Party. So I think it was incumbent upon us to try to change some of the strategy and the tactics that the state—in which they utilized rules and means and the legal means to further dehumanize people. So we engaged in some protests. We tried to educate some of our former prisoners about what was going on. And it was, again, incumbent upon us to not see ourselves—to see ourselves as victims, but not helpless victims. We wanted to do something about this, and this is why we established the teachings that we did, and this is why I joined Herman and Albert.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert King, I want to thank you for being with us. And Mwalimu Johnson, thank you. Robert King from Austin, Mwalimu Johnson from New Orleans. That does it for our broadcast. Again, Albert Woodfox’s conviction has been overturned for the third time. You can go to our website at Democracy Now! for more information.
Juan, you’re heading off to New Mexico for the showing of your film, and you’ll be speaking?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, yes, and in Phoenix, Arizona, on Friday night. Then in Albuquerque on Saturday afternoon, and Sunday—and Saturday night in Santa Fe.
AMY GOODMAN: And you can go to our website at democracynow.org for all the details.