[Ppnews] Angola 3 - Love and Death in South's Bloodiest Prison

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Sat May 3 15:09:31 EDT 2008


Love and death in the South's bloodiest prison

Two Black Panthers were convicted in the 1972 
stabbing of a newlywed guard at Angola, in 
Louisiana. Now, his widow - and others - aren't sure they did it.

By Miguel Bustillo
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

May 3, 2008

JEANERETTE, LA. — Thirty-six years have passed 
since she saw him last, but Leontine Verrett has 
never forgotten the face of the man she still 
calls her true love. His name was Brent Miller. 
He was lean and cocksure and strummed his guitar a little too loud.

Their romance blossomed on the grounds of the 
Louisiana State Penitentiary, the plantation 
turned prison built along a bend of the 
Mississippi River. He came from a clan where men 
had served as prison guards for generations. She 
was one of 12 children who moved there when their 
father got a job running the prison's sugar mill.

The lovers married on Feb. 5, 1972 -- he was 23, 
she was just 16. Two months later, the bride 
nicknamed Teenie got a call that there had been 
"an accident" at Angola, as the prison is known. She was a widow.

Miller had been stabbed 32 times and left in a 
prison dormitory in a pool of blood. Teenie's 
brother, who was also a guard, said Miller looked 
like he was wearing a red shirt. Horrified, he 
never returned to the job. Teenie soon learned 
that black militants stood accused of killing her 
husband, a random victim of what prison officials 
said was an inmate plot to murder a white man. 
She wanted the culprits to suffer and die. But 
unlike Miller's family, who crammed the 
courtrooms where the inmates were tried, she 
could not bear to sit and listen to the gruesome details.

"I didn't want to know," Verrett, now 52, said as 
her eyes misted up. "That was a lot to deal with 
at 17 years old. I trusted [the authorities] to do the right thing."

Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, Black Panthers 
from New Orleans who were serving time for armed 
robberies, were convicted of Miller's murder. The 
widow did her best to go on, moving to 
Jeanerette, an industrial town in the heart of 
Cajun country about two hours south of the 
prison. Two years later, she married Dean 
Verrett, who loved her despite her feelings for 
Miller, and they had three children. She began 
working at a beauty parlor, where she still works today.

Then 2 1/2 years ago, Billie Mizell, a legal 
investigator and fledgling author, showed up at 
Verrett's home near the banks of the Bayou Teche. 
She said she wanted to talk about Miller's murder.

What Mizell told Verrett stunned her. A bloody 
fingerprint found at the scene did not match 
Woodfox or Wallace. There was never any physical 
evidence linking them to the crime.

They'd been held in separate 6-by-9-foot cells 
for nearly every hour of every day. Supporters 
called their conditions solitary confinement; 
prison officials strongly disagreed. (The men 
were moved to a prison dormitory in March after nearly 36 years.)

Mizell said the star witness against Woodfox and 
Wallace, a repeat sex offender serving a life 
sentence, was promised freedom for his testimony 
-- a deal that the prosecution never disclosed to 
the defense. He was later transferred to another 
building where guards plied him with cigarettes, a prized jailhouse currency.

Verrett was skeptical. But she and Dean, who had 
also worked as an Angola guard, corroborated 
everything Mizell said by digging up court files 
and talking to friends and former co-workers.

After years of struggling with questions about 
the cold way prison authorities treated her when 
she sought compensation for her husband's death, 
issues she ignored as a teenager but that gnawed 
at her as an adult, she came to a troubling realization.

Maybe the militants, who had become an 
international cause celebre among liberal 
activists and human rights groups, were innocent.

"If I were on that jury," Verrett now says, "I 
don't think I would have convicted them."

The Louisiana State Penitentiary was infamous in 
the '60s and '70s as the bloodiest in the South, 
a place where guards routinely beat prisoners and 
inmates killed one another with crude knives. New 
Orleans musicians sang ominously about it like 
Greek poets evoking the underworld of Hades.

Called Angola after the birthplace of the slaves 
who worked there when it was a plantation, the 
prison drove inmates so hard that in 1952, 31 
severed their own Achilles tendons in protest.

When Miller began working there two decades 
later, the guards were all white and the 
prisoners segregated. Wardens looked the other 
way when stronger inmates sold weaker ones as sex servants.

Wallace and Woodfox were part of a crew of 
socially conscious Black Panthers who challenged 
the Darwinian order by organizing opposition and 
telling victims they did not have to be "turned 
out," according to the two inmates and others who 
served in Angola at that time. That riled the 
prison strongmen as well as the guards, who let 
the sex trade flourish because it kept prisoners busy, inmates recalled.

"I had to fight corruption and the things being 
tolerated by the prison administration to control 
the population," Woodfox, 61, said in an 
interview. "When you saw the look on these kids' 
faces -- to see the spirit of another human being 
broken -- it affected the way you looked at life."

Angola was also in another kind of power 
struggle. Warden C. Murray Henderson was hired to 
reform the modern-day dungeon and end racial 
segregation. But associate warden Hayden Dees, a 
respected voice among the prison's workers, opposed changes.

When Miller was killed on April 17, 1972, some 
guards blamed Henderson because he had recently 
released dozens of rebellious inmates, including Black Panthers, from lockdown.

Within days of Miller's death, prison officials 
had identified four suspects: Woodfox, Wallace, 
Chester Jackson and Gilbert Montegut. Woodfox, 
the accused ringleader, was tried separately, the others together.

The cases rested on witness testimony from other 
prisoners. The most crucial came from a repeat 
rapist named Hezekiah Brown. He first said he 
knew nothing of the murder, but after guards 
summoned him for more questioning, his story changed.

Brown, then 66, testified that he was preparing a 
cup of coffee for Miller when the men entered and 
began stabbing the guard. He said he fled after 
he was left unharmed. Based on that account, 
Woodfox was convicted of murder in 1973.

In the 1974 trial of the other men, Wallace was 
convicted, Montegut was acquitted and Jackson 
decided to testify for the prosecution, after he 
was apparently promised a reduced charge. Under 
pressure to help secure a conviction, Henderson 
pledged to Brown that he would get him out of 
prison, and later lobbied to make it happen, a 
deal that did not become public until two decades later.

Brown's sentence was commuted by Gov. Edwin Edwards in 1986.

Since the convictions, after prodding by 
attorneys and activists, supporting witnesses who 
claimed they saw Wallace and Woodfox leaving the 
scene have recanted, saying they were pressured 
by prison officials to testify -- and a former 
inmate has come forward to assert that another militant killed Miller.

Billy Wayne Sinclair, an award-winning prison 
journalist, was honored in 1980 by the American 
Bar Assn. for a story about inmate Irvin "Life" 
Breaux, who was killed after trying to stop a prison rape.

What Sinclair did not write, for fear it would 
hurt his chances of release, was that his friend 
"Life" had earlier confided that he stabbed 
Miller. Breaux described Miller as a "casualty of 
war" who walked in as militant inmates were 
hiding knives they planned to use to kill "Uncle 
Tom" black prisoners, said Sinclair. Breaux said 
Woodfox and Wallace were innocent, Sinclair now claims.

"He was telling me, sometimes people have to die 
to further the struggle, but Miller was not 
supposed to die," said Sinclair, a white inmate 
leader who grew close to Breaux after they helped 
integrate Angola without bloodshed in 1973. "He 
also told me that the free people [prison guards] knew what he had done."

In a twist of fate, Henderson, who left his post 
as Angola warden in the 1970s, was sent to a 
Louisiana prison years later after he tried to 
kill his wife. He was slowed by gout and needed 
assistance bathing -- and Sinclair, who had been 
transferred to the prison, helped. One day 
Sinclair said he asked him about the Miller case.

"I told him, you know damn well those guys didn't 
kill that free man that April morning," said 
Sinclair, 63, who is out of prison and living in 
Texas. "I wanted to get an acknowledgment . . . 
and he never said a thing to refute it."

The former warden died in prison in 2004.

Wallace and Woodfox had spent their days in 
separate cells, conversing with others through 
cracks in walls. After being placed in isolation 
almost immediately after the murder, they were 
allowed about an hour a day in the yard when 
other prisoners were inside. Two months ago, 
prison authorities released them into a dormitory 
with other maximum-security inmates. Officials did not explain why.

The move came less than a week after the head of 
the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers 
Jr. (D-Mich.), traveled to Angola to meet with 
the men. He released a statement expressing 
concern that they may be innocent, and noted that 
they had been in isolation for "possibly a longer 
period than any other inmate in U.S. history."

Two years ago, a state judicial commissioner 
recommended that Wallace's conviction be reversed 
on grounds that Louisiana withheld evidence 
favorable to him, giving his lawyers hope that 
the 66-year- old inmate would be freed. The case 
is before a state appeals court.

Woodfox faces far tougher hurdles. His murder 
conviction was overturned a decade ago. But he 
was retried and convicted in 1998, based again on 
Brown's earlier testimony, which was read into 
the record because Brown had died. Woodfox's 
attorneys are asking a federal court to reexamine his case.

"I have come to accept the fact that I may not 
survive to see a day out in society. But the way 
I see it, it's been worth it," Woodfox said. 
"It's worth fighting against injustice and inequality."

Woodfox, Wallace and another inmate are also 
pursuing a civil case against Angola, alleging 
inhumane treatment. Current warden Burl Cain, who 
has widely been credited with improving living 
conditions and ensuring that elderly inmates die 
with dignity, declined to discuss the ex-Black 
Panthers' imprisonment. But state officials have 
strenuously maintained that the isolation of 
Woodfox and Wallace did not constitute solitary 
confinement, noting that the inmates had televisions and limited human contact.

For more than a decade, activist groups including 
Amnesty International have complained about the 
treatment of Wallace and Woodfox, and the British 
founders of the Body Shop chain of beauty 
products have long championed their cause. 
Mizell, who's writing a book on the case, started 
working for the men's defense team after she 
became convinced they were innocent.

Verrett sometimes sits and looks at weathered 
pictures of Miller and herself. In hindsight, she 
believes state officials were trying to keep 
details of his death from coming to light, for 
fear that the public would learn that the 
evidence against Woodfox and Wallace was threadbare at best.

She remembered that two years after Miller's 
murder, she had tried to hire attorneys to file a 
claim against the state, seeking compensation -- 
a standard practice when guards are injured, much 
less killed. Prison officials became distant, and 
she eventually abandoned the case.

All she wants now is "justice for Brent," she 
said. She's not sure he's ever gotten it.

miguel.bustillo at latimes.com

Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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