[Ppnews] What's Next for Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3?

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jun 22 08:48:26 EDT 2010

What's Next for Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3?

A federal appeals court just delivered a crushing blow to prisoners' rights.

Ridgeway and 
Casella | Tue Jun. 22, 2010 1:00 AM PDT

Albert Woodfox has spent nearly all of the last 
38 years in solitary confinement at the Louisiana 
State Penitientiary at Angola. His case has 
brought protests from Amnesty International and 
Human Rights Watch, who argue that Woodfox’s 
decades in lockdown constitute torture, and from 
a growing band of supporters, who believe that he 
was denied a fair trial. For more than ten years, 
he has been fighting for his release in the 
courts. But yesterday, 
ruling by a federal appeals court [1] ensured 
that for the forseeable future, Albert Woodfox 
will remain right where he has been for the last 
three decades: in a 6 x 9 cell in the heart of 
America’s largest and most notorious prison.

It’s been nearly two years since a federal 
district court judge in Baton Rouge 
Woodfox’s conviction [2] for the 1972 murder of a 
guard at Louisiana’s Angola prison. Judge James 
Brady’s 2008 ruling, which ordered the state to 
retry Woodfox or release him, brought new hope to 
the 63-year-old Woodfox, who has been in 
Angola–originally for armed robbery–since he was 
24. A member of the group known as the Angola 3, 
Woodfox has always contended that he was 
effectively framed for the guard’s murder–and 
then thrown into permament lockdown–because of 
his involvement with the Black Panther Party, 
which was organizing against conditions in what 
was then known as the "bloodiest prison in the South."

Without drawing any conclusions about Woodfox’s 
guilt or innocence, Judge Brady of the Federal 
District Court, Middle District of Louisiana, 
concluded that Woodfox had not received due 
process at his 1998 trial (which was intself a 
replacement for a faulty 1973 trial). The main 
grounds for overturning Woodfox’s conviction were 
ineffective assistance of counsel, which allowed 
questionable evidence and irregular practices to 
stand without challenge. Woodfox had argued that 
better lawyers could have shown that his 
conviction was quite literally bought by the 
state, which based its case on jailhouse 
informants who were rewarded for their testimony. 
(Woodfox’s case was described in full in 
2009 article for 
<http://motherjones.com/politics/2009/03/36-years-solitude>Mother Jones [3].)

Judge Brady agreed, and in July 2008 he granted 
Woodfox’s Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, 
ordering that his conviction and life sentence be 
"reversed and vacated." But some of the most 
powerful figures in the Lousiana justice system 
were committed to keeping Woodfox in prison and 
in lockdown. After his conviction was overturned, 
Attorney General James "Buddy" Caldwell 
[4], "We will appeal this decision to the 5th 
Circuit [Court of Appeals]. If the ruling is 
upheld there I will not stop and we will take 
this case as high as we have to. I will retry 
this case myself
I oppose letting him out with 
every fiber of my being because this is a very dangerous man."

Caldwell put his case before the federal Fifth 
Circuit in March 2009–and in yesterday's 
decision, he prevailed. In a 2-1 decision, a 
panel of three federal appellate judges ruled 
that Judge Brady had erred in overturning 
Wallace’s conviction. Their decision is not only 
a crushing blow for Woodfox, but also a 
manifestation of how far the rights of the 
accused have fallen in recent decades.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals 
had a reputation [5] as one of the finest 
appellate courts in the land. In the 1960s, a 
small group of Fifth Circuit judges­mostly 
Southern-bred moderate Republicans­was known for 
advancing civil rights and especially school 
desegregation. But today the Fifth Circuit, which 
covers Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi, is seen 
as among the most ideologically conservative of 
the federal appeals courts. It is notable for its 
overburdened docket and for its hostility to 
appeals from defendants in capital cases, 
including claims based on faulty prosecution and 
suppressed evidence. The court has even been 
reprimanded by the US Supreme Court, itself is no 
friend to death row inmates: In June 2004, 
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that the Fifth 
Circuit was "paying lip service to principles" of 
appellate law in handing down death penalty rulings.

In addition, the decision in Woodfox’s case shows 
the crippling effects on prisoners’ rights of the 
1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty 
Act (AEDPA) which was passed under Bill Clinton 
in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombings. That 
legislation has become the bane of anti-death 
penalty lawyers and activists, and of thousands 
of other prisoners seeking to challenge their 
convictions–a pursuit which AEDPA now renders nearly impossible.

As the Fifth Circuit noted in its ruling, "The 
AEDPA requires that federal courts "defer to a 
state court’s adjudication of a claim" unless the 
state court decision ran "contrary to
established Federal law, as determined by the 
Supreme Court," or was "based on an unreasonable 
determination of the facts in light of the 
evidence presented in the State court 
proceeding." And as the judges pointed out, "An 
unreasonable application of federal law is 
different from an incorrect or erroneous application of the law."

In other words, the state courts could be wrong, 
they just couldn't be so far out as to be 
undeniably "unreasonable." And in the end, the 
Fifth Circuit judges agreed with the State’s 
argument that "the district court failed to apply 
the AEDPA's heightened deferential standard of 
review to Woodfox's ineffective assistance 
claims." For Woodfox, this means that his time in 
prison stretches before him with no foreseeable 
end in sight. His lawyers have promised to return 
to his case with new evidence, but that could 
take years, and the outcome might still be the 
same. In the meantime, Woodfox and fellow Angola 
3 members Herman Wallace and Robert King have 
mounted a 
challenge to their solitary confinement [6], 
which may come to trial before the end of this 
year. That case, too, will eventually go before 
the Fifth Circuit–and even a win would mean only 
a release from permanent lockdown, not from Angola.

This post also appears at James Ridgeway's 
personal blog, <http://solitarywatch.wordpress.com/>Solitary Watch [7].

Source URL: 

[2] http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/story?id=5339513&page=1
[3] http://motherjones.com/politics/2009/03/36-years-solitude
[4] http://a.abcnews.com/Blotter/Story?id=5894181&page=1
[5] http://www.thenation.com/issue/may-3-2004
[6] http://motherjones.com/politics/2009/06/life-permanent-lockdown
[7] http://solitarywatch.wordpress.com/

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