NEW YORK (Reuters) - A dying member of Louisiana’s “Angola Three” inmates, who spent 41 years in solitary confinement for a killing he says he didn’t commit, was freed on Tuesday after a federal judge ruled that he did not get a fair trial in 1974.
Herman Wallace, 71, returned by ambulance Tuesday to a hospice in his native New Orleans - about a month after prison medical treatments to stem his advancing liver cancer were stopped, said Wallace’s attorney, George H. Kendall.
“There is great joy that he is going to be treated much, much better, whether for three days or for three months,” Kendall said. “But it’s a tragedy. I feel very badly. There’s only so much joy in this, to be perfectly honest.”
U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson ruled early Tuesday that Wallace had not received a fair trial because women were excluded from the grand jury that indicted him, violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protections guarantee.
Jackson overturned Wallace’s murder conviction.
The ruling was a response to a federal habeas corpus motion filed by Wallace’s attorneys in 2009, after decades of state appeals had been exhausted.
Louisiana state prosecutors appealed Jackson’s ruling. Jackson threw out that appeal and again ordered Wallace’s immediate release, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported.
Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore then filed a motion asking the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to stay Jackson’s decision and order Wallace back to prison, according to NOLA.com.
“We respectfully disagree with (Jackson’s) decision,” Hillar said after Jackson’s first ruling NOLA.com reported. Hillar could not immediately be reached for comment.
Wallace, Albert Woodfox and Robert King were dubbed the “Angola Three” in 1997 when a young law student and a former Black Panther discovered the three black inmates were still in solitary confinement - in 6-by-9-foot cells for 23 hours a day - after more than two decades.
In 1971, Wallace and Woodfox were imprisoned for armed robbery at Louisiana’s Angola prison farm, the nation’s largest maximum security prison sprawled across 18,000 acres of a former slave plantation.
Wallace and Woodfox founded an Angola chapter of the Black Panthers Party, a black nationalist group then considered by U.S. law enforcement to be akin to domestic terrorists.
The pair of Panthers organized inmate protests against rape, violence and inhumane conditions at Angola.
They were charged and convicted of the 1972 stabbing of white prison guard Brent Miller, 23, reportedly knifed more than 30 times in a prison riot.
Both men said they were innocent from the start, arguing they were framed for their politics and protests. Supporters say no physical evidence ties the men to the murder.
“They were targeted for their political views,” Kendall said.
At that time, Angola was largely populated by black inmates and run by an all white prison staff, Kendall said.
A 2008 Los Angeles Times account of Miller’s 1972 murder called Angola’s prison farm the “bloodiest in the South, 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.”
King arrived at Angola in 1972, and was accused of killing a fellow inmate in 1973. He was convicted and spent 29 years in solitary confinement, according to Kendall and news reports.
His conviction was overturned in 2001 when he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. He has since traveled the world as a leading opponent of solitary confinement.
Wallace and Woodfox, who remains in solitary confinement in Louisiana, have served more time in solitary confinement than any U.S. inmate in history, Kendall said.
Kendall and his co-counsel Nick Trenticosta said Wallace has only weeks to live.
“All his energy is going toward staying alive,” Kendall said. “If you knew anyone who had liver cancer you would know it’s a very unforgiving illness.”
Kendall, who also represents Wallace in a civil lawsuit against the state of Louisiana, said he’s confident he can keep Wallace out of prison through the end of his life.
“He’s not going to survive the appeal,” Kendall said.
(This story is corrected to reposition paragraphs 17-19)
Reporting By Chris Francescani, editing by Elizabeth Piper