- Robert Kingmember of the Angola Three who spent 29 years in solitary confinement for a murder he did not commit. He was released in 2001 after his conviction was overturned. He’s written a book about his experience, From the Bottom of the Heap: The Autobiography of Black Panther Robert Hillary King. He is featured in a brand new film about his life called Hard Time.
- Carine Williamsattorney for Albert Woodfox with the law firm Squire Patton Boggs.
We continue our interview about Albert Woodfox, a former Black Panther who a federal court has ordered to be freed after he spent more than 40 years in solitary confinement, longer than any prisoner in the United States. Woodfox and the late Herman Wallace, another prisoner of the “Angola Three,” were convicted of murdering a guard at Angola Prison. The Angola Three and their supporters say they were framed for their political activism. A federal judge ruled last year that 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 have negated the victories with a series of appeals. Thursday’s ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the order for Woodfox’s release in a unanimous decision. But prosecutors could still delay its enforcement with more appeals to keep Woodfox behind bars. “There is no legitimate explanation for this,” says Carine Williams, a lawyer for Albert Woodfox with the firm Squire Patton Boggs. We are also joined by Robert King, a member of the Angola Three who spent 29 years in solitary confinement for a murder he did not commit.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we bring you part two of our coverage today of Albert Woodfox. A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld a lower court ruling ordering Louisiana to release the former Black Panther, who has spent more than 40 years in solitary confinement. Woodfox and the late Herman Wallace, another prisoner of the so-called Angola Three, were convicted of murdering a guard at Angola Prison. The Angola Three and their supporters say they were framed for their political activism.
Well, we’re joined right now by two guests. Robert King, the third member of the Angola Three, he was freed after serving 29 years in solitary confinement for a murder he did not commit, released in 2001 after his conviction was overturned. He’s joining us from Austin, Texas. And here in New York, Carine Williams is with us, a lawyer for Albert Woodfox, an attorney with the New York firm Squire Patton Boggs. She was with Albert Woodfox on Thursday, was able to deliver the news of this unanimous decision of the court.
Carine, how unusual—how many times has his conviction been overturned and the court’s ruling that he should be released?
CARINE WILLIAMS: It’s happened at least three times.
AMY GOODMAN: And this time was unanimous?
CARINE WILLIAMS: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read from the New York Times editorial that came out on Saturday. They said, “Richard Nixon was president when Albert Woodfox landed in solitary confinement, along with another inmate, both convicted of the 1972 murder of a Louisiana prison guard named Brent Miller. Mr. Woodfox is still there. Now 67 years old, he has maintained his innocence of the murder from the start. He has been held in isolation longer than any prisoner in the United States, and perhaps in the nation’s history. For 23 hours a day—23 hours and 45 minutes on weekends—he sits by himself in a closet-size, windowless cell. He eats all his meals alone. He has no access to the prison’s educational or religious activities. His contact with visitors is extremely limited.”
Now, if court after court rules he should be freed, even as the state challenges this, how can it be that he remains in solitary confinement?
CARINE WILLIAMS: It’s an excellent question that we’ve also been asking the courts to answer. So, parallel to these cases which have challenged the convictions of the Angola Three, we’ve also been litigating a civil rights case, arguing that it is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Due Process Clause, Mr. Woodfox’s First Amendment rights and the Equal Protection Clause. So, you know, there is no legitimate explanation for this. Mr. Woodfox hasn’t had a disciplinary in prison at all in the prison that he’s at now, ever. And he hasn’t—the last disciplinary he had was in 2008 for three-way phone call violations, which presents no security threat.
AMY GOODMAN: You mean when he calls someone, and they link up to someone else.
CARINE WILLIAMS: In fact, the majority of the calls that the state found—and we’ve argued in court that this was a pretextual disciplinary just to take Mr. Woodfox from a dorm, where he had been for eight months, and put him back into solitary. But most of the phone calls were to attorneys. So, it was a matter of me conferencing in, for example, my colleague so that we could have an attorney-client call with our client.
AMY GOODMAN: Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell issued a statement following the ruling on Thursday. He wrote, quote, “The Appeals Court decision focused on a technicality with the grand jury selection process from as far back as 30 years ago. No court decision, including this one, has ever made a finding which disputes the fact that Albert Woodfox murdered Brent Miller at Angola in 1972. Those facts will always remain true. We respectfully disagree with the Court’s ruling, and remain committed to seeing that the trial jury’s judgment finding Albert Woodfox guilty of murdering Officer Brent Miller is upheld.” Carine Williams, your response?
CARINE WILLIAMS: I have two responses to it. At the top, you know, it always—my jaw drops every time I hear the attorney general of Louisiana refer to the Constitution as a mere technicality. This is a right that every citizen of the United States has, which is to a grand jury that is not tainted by racial discrimination. So, I would say that first. This is no mere technicality. This is our Constitution.
Second, I think, you know, this has gone on now, it’s important to remember, for 42 years. There is no—I mean, it just begs the question to say that the facts are true, that Mr. Woodfox is guilty of killing this officer, when there’s been no fact finding by a jury which has been allowed to fairly hear all the evidence and which hasn’t been tainted by racial discrimination.
AMY GOODMAN: And again, Teenie Verret, the widow of the prison guard, says she does not believe that these men are guilty of murdering her husband. A key witness in the case against Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox was a man named Hezekiah Brown, who said he witnessed the murder. But his credibility was subsequently called into question. I want to play a clip from the documentary In the Land of the Free. This is Nick Trenticosta, a lawyer who represented Herman and Albert, describing Hezekiah Brown. After that, you hear the voice of the film’s narrator, the actor Samuel Jackson.
NICK TRENTICOSTA: Hezekiah first told the investigators at the prison that he was nowhere around, he didn’t know anything about the murder. A few days later, he’s dragged from his bed at midnight, put under the bright lights of interrogation and told, “If you help us crack the case, we will get you your freedom.” At that point, he said it was Wallace and Woodfox.
SAMUEL JACKSON: And local author Anne Butler’s research recordings provided evidence of just how pliable Hezekiah Brown could be.
ANNE BUTLER: Well, at the trial, they call Hezekiah Brown, you know, and he said that he saw Woodfox and three other black men.
DEPUTY WARDEN BUTLER: Hezekiah was one you could put words in his mouth.
AMY GOODMAN: Was Hezekiah Brown freed, Carine?
CARINE WILLIAMS: He was. Ultimately, the evidence came out, was finally disclosed, that he had been promised a pardon, and eventually was pardoned. And although he had been a serial—convicted serial rapist who at one point was on death row, he was able to live in freedom.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert King, I wanted to bring you back into this discussion, again, a member of the Angola Three, along with Herman Wallace, now deceased, though he died a free man, ordered by a judge to be freed days before he was exonerated. The warden did not want to free Herman Wallace, and the judge threatened the warden with prison if he didn’t release Herman Wallace. Robert King spent 29 years in solitary confinement for a murder he did not commit, released in 2001 after his conviction was overturned. To this day, Albert Woodfox has endured visual body cavity searches—explain what that is—sometimes up to six times a day. What does that mean, Robert? You were in solitary, as well.
ROBERT KING: Yes, a visual casual body search would be the routine that they apply to inmates who are in prison in solitary confinement, such as where we were, or where I lived, in CCR, which means closed cell restriction. And it was routinely done, where if you left your cell—you did not leave your cell unless you were shackled or handcuffed. You was in a cell by yourself all day long. But it was only routinely that whenever you were placed on a call out and you had to leave your cell for whatever reason, they would come to your cell, and they would ask you to get out—strip out of your clothes, and they would bring you to a visual search, anal search, rectal search, as it was called. And that was routine. And this can happen up to six, seven, eight, 10 times a day, depending on how many times are you taken from your cell. And lots of times, you know, in certain cases, a person is taken from his cell for a lot of frivolous reasons just so some guards can have the joy of, you know, doing things to an inmate that is visual, because this is something that we all frown at, because it just—
AMY GOODMAN: You endured this, as well, Robert?
ROBERT KING: Of course. This was endured for some time up until sometime in '79 or ’80. Woodfox—it was then that NOLAC filed a civil lawsuit against the routine. It was in the state courts. And Woodfox, et al., v., I think it was, Phelps, et al., and the state court ruled that routine body searches would not be tolerated, and there was a negotiated settlement that prevented that for a while. But I'm told that the state would disnegotiate the settlement, which was not binding. They went back to routinely searching inmates, and the visual search continues.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re his lawyer, Carine. How does this continue now?
CARINE WILLIAMS: So, just to be clear, there is a preliminary injunction currently in place, which stops, prohibits these searches from being done to Mr. Woodfox specifically.
AMY GOODMAN: For how long has that been in place?
CARINE WILLIAMS: It remains to be seen. It’s pending on appeal in the Fifth Circuit.
AMY GOODMAN: Is it in effect now?
CARINE WILLIAMS: So, the policy is in effect. In March of last year—as Robert just said, Woodfox had litigated this in the late 1970s and got the state of Louisiana to say this is unconstitutional, a violation of the Fourth Amendment, has to stop. They stopped. In March of last year, for some reason, they resumed this practice at this facility where Mr. Woodfox is being held.
AMY GOODMAN: Did the judge in the case die?
CARINE WILLIAMS: That’s right. So it was the same month—
AMY GOODMAN: The one who ruled this?
CARINE WILLIAMS: That’s right. So, the state court judge who ordered that the state enter into a consent decree to stop these strip searches passed away in the same month that they resumed this conduct again. So, they are proceeding in violation of a court order. Just because a judge dies does not mean that the court order is no longer in effect.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip of Herman Wallace, who together with Robert King and Albert Woodfox were known as the Angola Three. This is Herman, before he died, describing the impact of solitary confinement on his body. This is from the remarkable film by Jackie Sumell called Herman’s House.
HERMAN WALLACE: Being in a cage for such an extended period of time, it has its downfalls. I mean, you may not feel it, you may not know it, you may think that you’re OK, and you just perfunctorily move about, you know. However, when you was removed from out of that type of situation and placed in an open environment where, you know, you’re even breathing that oxygen and it’s getting into your lungs and you’re feeling something growing within you, and—you begin to develop a different mode within your body. I even watched my body. I’ve looked in the mirror, and I’ve seen muscles and [bleep] begin to pop out there. I began to run even faster and [bleep]. And I’m saying, “Whoa, what the hell is going on here?” Much was preserved. But then I got locked up again after eight months. And being locked up like that, the whole body just got confused.
AMY GOODMAN: And I want to play another clip from the end of the film, Herman’s House. It’s Herman describing a dream he had. Listen carefully.
HERMAN WALLACE: I’ve had a dream where I got to the front gate, and there’s a whole lot of people out there. And you ain’t going to believe this, but I was dancing my way out. I was doing the jitterbug. I was doing all kind of crazy, stupid-ass [bleep], you know? And people was just laughing and clapping and [bleep], you know, until I walked out that gate. And I remember that dream, and I turn around, you know, and I look, and there are all the brothers in the window waving and throwing the fist sign, you know? It’s—it’s rough, man. It’s so real, you know. I can feel it even now, you know, talking about that.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Herman Wallace from the film Herman’s House, as he dreamed of building a house outside, as well, and Jackie Sumell helped him design that house. Yes, he was released as he lay dying on a gurney, and people cheered as the ambulance drove to New Orleans, and he died at the home of a friend. You, Carine Williams, were his lawyer, as well. Albert Woodfox got to be with Herman Wallace at the end to say goodbye.
CARINE WILLIAMS: In another stunning coincidence, we had already planned an attorney-client visit, a joint attorney-client visit, so our other clients, Albert and King, were present for this visit the day that the decision came down ordering Herman’s release. So we were able to tell him. Initially, he thought we were talking about Albert’s release. And he was very—it was difficult for him to speak at that point. But he had a big smile.
AMY GOODMAN: He was dying of liver cancer.
CARINE WILLIAMS: He was. And then I said, “No,” you know, clarified, “Herman, this is your case. You’re free.” And he looked around the room, and he said, “I still know where I am. I’m not free yet.” So proceeded then to work with the prison, which resisted our efforts. We had an ambulance waiting outside the gates to take him home. Eventually, under order from the court—
AMY GOODMAN: One of the wardens said—the warden was resisting.
CARINE WILLIAMS: Yes. So, the warden initially, at the outset, refused to release him, notwithstanding what the order said.
AMY GOODMAN: And so what did the judge do to force him?
CARINE WILLIAMS: The judge waited in chambers past quitting time, said, you know, if they—”Let us know if they haven’t released him by a certain time,” and made clear in an order from the court that if they didn’t release him, that they would be subject to sanctions, which could possibly mean that the warden would be arrested for violating a court order.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, he was released free, Albert—
CARINE WILLIAMS: He was released. Herman was released. When we got to the hospital, he looked at me. He said, “Now I’m free.” So he was very aware of what was going on, although he couldn’t speak a whole lot.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert King, what would Albert Woodfox’s freedom mean for you? You left prison, but you have never stopped talking about this case. In fact, it was, I think, a speech you gave at Stanford, where a student, Jackie Sumell, was, who heard you and got active in the case and ended up doing Herman’s House, the film, and building the dream house with Herman that—ended up designing it with him over the years for him to have a place to come to when he got out. What would this court decision mean for you?
ROBERT KING: Well, the court decision would mean to me that most of the work that we collectively set out to do—that is, including all of the people who ultimately got on board—that most of this work is done. But for those of us who are committed activists, we understand that this is only the tip of the iceberg and that the work continues, because, you know, the communities are plagued with cases such as that of the Angola Three. We were fortunate enough to get our case into the public light, but there are people who are not that fortunate. And we would hope just that this would be the beginning of our continuing effort to continue to focus on the broader picture, the bigger picture, to those who are not fortunate or who has not been fortunate enough as we have to have had the resources and the output that we’ve been fortunate enough to have.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert King, how did you endure those almost three decades in solitary confinement? How did you maintain your sanity?
ROBERT KING: Well, I do believe when people ask me how did I maintain my sanity or equilibrium, I usually laugh when I think about it. Some people are kind: They ask me, “Why aren’t you crazy?” And, Amy, I always tell them, “Wait a minute, I didn’t tell you I was not crazy.” I say this because, you know, not that I’m insane or psychotic, but you cannot get dipped in waste and not come up smelling.
But I do believe, to answer your question, is that the reason why I was able to maintain my sanity was because of my new political belief. You know, I realized exactly what was happening to me as a result of my political consciousness. I think coming in contact with the Black Panther Party gave me the insight which I needed to kind of define my condition and the condition of Albert and myself and the reason why were placed in those conditions. So, you know, the idea was to eliminate this and to focus on this and to go further. And so, this decision with Albert means to me that the struggle continues, it goes on, and there are so many more bridges that we have to cross in order to keep this focus going.
AMY GOODMAN: You talked about this being part of a much broader issue, and I was wondering if you consider the whole movement in Ferguson that is on fire right now, after the death of Mike Brown, the 18-year-old African-American teenager killed by white police officer Darren Wilson, now awaiting the grand jury decision, if you see that as a part of this movement and how that affects you.
ROBERT KING: Of course, it is very much a part of the movement. It’s just a part of the broader—the bigger picture, because, you know, if there were not conditions such as Ferguson, there would not be conditions such as that that the Angola Three have been, you know, adjudicated to endure over the years. So, we see that there is a broad connection between community and policing, and so forth and so on. And we see that this connection is something that is well grounded and founded in the system dealing with so-called criminal justice. So, everyone is impacted and affected by it. So, Ferguson, Angola Three, they are connected, without a doubt. All you have to do, just keep looking into the microscope, and you will see that there is a connection.
AMY GOODMAN: Also, since we’ve last spoken, King, the whole NSA scandal has exploded, with Ed Snowden, you know, going to Hong Kong, releasing these revelations about spying on the American people. I mean, this is a story you have dealt with for decades in a slightly different way—through COINTELPRO, the counterintelligence program, the FBI particularly targeting not only dissidents, but the Black Panther Party. And I was wondering your thoughts on this, as all Americans now begin to understand what it means to live under a microscope.
ROBERT KING: Well, yes, and this is indeed—when COINTELPRO was revealed, of course, it was something that it was a revelation that happened at that time, with ’68 or so. But, I mean, even before COINTELPRO, there were other different national security agencies that were spying on people. So, you know, the fact that it is more prevalent now and that is—you know, had become exposed by an individual does not mean that it did not exist or that it will not continue to exist.
So, I think we’re incumbent. People need to understand and see the connection. We realize that all of this is connected. You know, government, politics, prisons, all of these, you know, they’re a part of the broader scheme. And we have to understand. We have to keep focus. We have to—I think democracy belongs to the people. I think people have to stay in touch with democracy. It means people power. If you relinquish that power to politicians, then it’s like giving up your birthright. And I think people have to get involved in all politics. Politics is a part of people’s life. People say, “I don’t have anything to do with politics.” Nothing could be further from the truth. You may not have anything to do with politics, but politics has something to do with you, and we should all be involved.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Carine Williams, as we wrap up, you’ve been involved with this case for how many years—Herman Wallace, also Albert Woodfox?
CARINE WILLIAMS: Well, this is the sixth year that I’ve been working on this case, and I’m the last, hopefully, in a long lineage of lawyers this case has been going on.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain the unit you work out of and the law firm you work for.
CARINE WILLIAMS: So, I work for Squire Patton Boggs, and within the firm we have what we consider a dedicated pro bono practice group. We spend about 70 percent of our time working on pro bono cases, many capital habeas cases and prisoner civil rights litigation. The main case that I work on are these habeas cases of—
AMY GOODMAN: And when you say habeas cases, for a layperson—
CARINE WILLIAMS: So, challenging the conviction of Mr. Woodfox and Mr. Wallace last year, and then challenging the use of solitary confinement, which is a collateral case.
AMY GOODMAN: At the same time as we hear about the case of Albert Woodfox, an Ohio man was just freed from prison after spending 39 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. Ricky Jackson, 59-year-old African-American man, was jailed since 1975 on a murder conviction, the prosecution’s case based on a 13-year-old witness who now says that—well, he recanted his testimony, saying he implicated Jackson and two others under police coercion. He said the police had threatened his parents with arrest if he didn’t say this. Ricky Jackson now freed. These are the kinds of cases that you work on. Do you feel that the—do you feel that things are changing in America right now for the better?
CARINE WILLIAMS: I do think the public conversation is changing, and it’s promising. I do think that there’s more attention paid onto what this means for us collectively, and not just for this segment of society, the poor African-American minorities, but what it means for all of us when we’re not all allowed to participate in the fabric of democracy. I hear it in conversations about resources, how much money is spent on prisons and incarceration and in policing. And I’m hopeful that it means that the pendulum is going to swing back the other way.
AMY GOODMAN: And, King, we give you the last word. We’re just about to lose the satellite to Austin. But if you could speak—see Albert Woodfox right now, directly, or you did talk to him on the telephone this weekend, what exactly did you say?
ROBERT KING: I talked to him, and I told him we was just that much closer to his being released. And he’s very hopeful that this could happen, but he also knows that we still have maybe a couple of hurdles that we have to spring over. And he has no doubt that we’ll be able to do that. So, I’ll tell him, “I’ll be seeing you, bro.”
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. King, Robert King, a member of the Angola Three, spent 29 years in solitary confinement for a murder that he was—his conviction was overturned in 2001, has gone out around the country speaking about this case, because Albert Woodfox, another of the Angola Three, remains behind bars. Herman Wallace died days after he was released. Again, we will continue to follow the case of Albert Woodfox. Carine Williams, thank you for joining us, the lawyer for Albert Woodfox, an attorney with the New York firm Squire Patton Boggs. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.