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Dissenting Against Another Unjust Retrial Of Albert Woodfox By State Of Louisiana

A federal appeals court ruled Louisiana could subject Albert Woodfox to another trial and effectively sanctioned the vast majority of the abuse, torture, and injustice which Woodfox has survived over the past four decades. But one appeals court judge penned a stirring dissent against the court’s decision.

“If ever a case justifiably could be considered to present ‘exceptional circumstances’ barring reprosecution, this is that case,” argued Judge James L. Dennis. “For more than four decades, Albert Woodfox has been solitarily confined to a nine-by-six foot cell for 23 hours each day. During the single hour of the day that Woodfox is permitted outside his compact single cell, he also must remain in solitude.”

“At all times, therefore, Woodfox remains in unmitigated isolation-despite being a model prisoner who is now 68 years old and in frail health suffering from an onslaught of life-shortening conditions, including heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and a liver ailment that puts him at a high risk for developing cancer,” Dennis explained. “Although the State of Louisiana has subjected Woodfox to these harsh conditions for the 1972 murder of Brent Miller, the State has twice tried and twice failed to obtain a constitutionally valid conviction of Woodfox.”

“In other words, for the vast majority of his life, Woodfox has spent nearly every waking hour in a cramped cell in crushing solitude without a valid conviction to justify what [Supreme Court] Justice [Anthony] Kennedy recently described as the ‘terrible price’ paid by those suffering ‘[y]ears on end of near-total isolation.'”

Known as one of the “Angola 3,” Woodfox was accused of murdering a Louisiana State Penitentiary officer in 1972. However, his second-degree murder conviction has been overturned three times.

Woodfox has remained in prison and held in solitary confinement for over forty years. Most recently, Woodfox successfully argued he faced “racial discrimination in the grand jury composition in his case,” which the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld on November 20, 2014.

A federal district court barred Woodfox from retrial on June 8, 2015. The state of Louisiana appealed and had Woodfox’s release from jail blocked.

On November 9, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s ruling against retrial. The decision argued the case did not present a “constitutional violation,” which could not be remedied with another trial. The court also maintained that “exceptional circumstances” did not make a new trial unjust.

This outcome occurred, despite the acknowledgment of seven key factors in Woodfox’s case:

  1. Woodfox is 68 years-old and has poor health
  2. the lapse of time from his first trial in 1973 to a third trial would prejudice his ability to bring a defense
  3. questionable litigation tactics by the State of Louisiana
  4. evidence which proves his innocence and lack of physical evidence tying Woodfox to the murder
  5. four decades-plus time in solitary confinement
  6. both previous trials suffered from the constitutional defect of racial discrimination in grand jury foreperson selection
  7. State of Louisiana would get a “third bite at the apple”

In spite of all those factors which led the district court to bar the state from retrying Woodfox, the federal appeals court still issued a decision that asserted another trial would not violate Woodfox’s constitutional rights.

Dennis’ dissent called attention to this “constellation of extraordinary factors” which were not apparently alarming enough to the other judges to remedy.

“It has been well-settled for more than a hundred years that a criminal conviction cannot stand if it is based on an indictment by a grand jury that excluded individuals on the basis of their race,” Dennis declared. “Yet Woodfox was subjected to solitary confinement for almost twenty long years before a state court, after unconscionable delay, finally vacated his first conviction based on the racial discrimination that infected the selection of his first grand jury and his counsel’s failure to attempt to quash the indictment on that basis.”

The State of Louisiana was given one opportunity previously to re-prosecute Woodfox in manner free of racial discrimination and failed. And, as Dennis noted, “In the time it took for the State’s repeated error to be acknowledged and corrected, Woodfox was forced to endure another twenty years in the throes of solitary confinement.”

Dennis outlines the misconduct of the State of Louisiana, as well as the deaths of key witnesses, which means Woodfox will not be able to cross-examine them at trial. Stand-ins will read testimony—some of which is highly questionable and, in the case of one witness, the result of coercion.

“In the present proceedings, the State has continued to deploy troubling tactics by obtaining an arrest warrant for Woodfox prior to the issuance of our court’s mandate and unilaterally transferring him to a parish jail, thereby attempting to ‘moot’ the district court’s authority to release Woodfox in light of our decision affirming the grant of habeas relief,” Dennis added. “Recently surfaced allegations that the State made inflammatory statements to the third grand jury in order to obtain a third indictment create even greater uncertainty as to Woodfox’s ability to obtain a fair trial in the State’s third prosecution.”

Dennis concluded, “The wrongful harm done to Woodfox, not only as a litigant but also as a human being by his two unconstitutional convictions and his egregious four decades of solitary confinement, cannot be rectified by the usual remedy of reversal and re-prosecution.” However, “If the ends of ‘law and justice’ set forth in [rule for issuing writ] do not justify the district court’s unconditional writ barring Woodfox’s re-prosecution, then the Great Writ is but a hollow remedy in this case.”

Amnesty International USA reacted, “Woodfox should have walked free before U.S. District Judge James Brady ordered his unconditional release in June of this year. But Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell continues to relentlessly pursue vengeance over justice and has succeeded in prolonging Woodfox’s legal nightmare.”

 

Angola 3 News, which has documented all legal developments in the cases of  the Angola 3, stated, “Albert’s conviction will remain overturned, but there is no longer any doubt that he will be retried a third time by the State of Louisiana, only miles from the solitary cell where he’s spent the bulk of his life.”

The site added, “Though we are disappointed our friend remains in solitary for a crime he didn’t commit, we remain confident that the truth of his innocence and integrity of his struggle for justice will ultimately free him.”

In this April 25, 2006 photograph, three Palestinian teenagers are blindfolded as they are detained at a West Bank checkpoint. (Flickr / Kashi Halford)
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."