[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
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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