September 2, 2015 / 5:10 AM / 4 years ago

U.S. court weighs release of last 'Angola 3' inmate in Louisiana

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Lawyers for a prisoner who spent some 40 years in isolation told a federal appeals court on Wednesday he is too sickly to endure a third trial for a prison guard’s 1972 murder and should be released, as a lower court ordered earlier this summer.

Albert Woodfox, 68, is the last of three black prisoners known as the Angola Three, whose lengthy stays in solitary confinement drew attention to conditions at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. The other two were freed in 2001 and 2013, the latter dying three days after his release.

Woodfox’s lawyer, George Kendall, told a three-member panel of the U.S. 5th District Court of Appeals that the federal judge who ordered Woodfox released rightly saw him as a man who was “sick, old and has been very harshly punished.”

Woodfox “doesn’t have much more time and he shouldn’t be made to run the gauntlet again,” said Kendall, who has said his client suffers from heart disease, renal failure and hepatitis C.

Woodfox appears to have served one of the longest stretches in solitary confinement in U.S. penal history, Kendall has said. He spent most of the time in a cell measuring roughly 6 feet by 8 feet (1.8 meters by 2.4 meters).

In his June ruling, U.S. District Judge James Brady barred the state from pursuing a third trial.

Richard Stanley, appearing for the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office, said witnesses could be found for a retrial, disputing defense contentions that all key witnesses had died.

The case stems from the 1972 killing of Brent Miller, a white prison guard. Woodfox’s second conviction was thrown out in 2014 by the same federal appeals court, which cited evidence that racial discrimination may have tainted the selection of a grand jury foreperson.

Indicted for a third time in February, Woodfox is being held without bail at the West Feliciana Detention Center.

Woodfox and a co-defendant, Herman Wallace, were imprisoned on an armed robbery charge in 1971. They maintained their innocence in Miller’s murder, saying they were charged in retaliation for founding a prison chapter of the Black Panthers Party.

Wallace won his freedom in October 2013 after his conviction was overturned. He died of liver cancer three days later.

The other Angola Three inmate, Robert King, was accused of killing a fellow inmate. He was released in 2001.

The appellate court did not indicate when it would rule.

Editing by Letitia Stein and Mohammad Zargham

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