Albert Woodfox, longtime Black Panther Activist at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, was re-convicted in December of the 1972 murder of a prison guard. On February 23, he was sentenced to life without parole. Despite a long paper trail of evidence suggesting a frame-up by Angola autho6tes, a mostly white jury took only about five hours to convict Woodfox of the crime.
Prior to his retrial, Woodfox had served over 24 years in solitary confinement. Now that he has been sentenced, he fully expects to be returned to Angola’s isolation unit.
Fellow Panther Herman ‘Hooks’ Wallace was also convicted of the murder. Serving his 27th year of continuous solitary confinement, Wallace, without a lawyer, is still trying to win a reversal of his original conviction (as a result of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, Wallace may have less than one year to submit a federal petition for writ of habeas corpus.
In 1971, Woodfox and Wallace founded a chapter of the Black Panther Party at Angola. Up to the point the guard, Brent Miller, was killed, the Panthers assembled a stellar record as inmate organizers. Among their proudest achievements was their campaign to end the rape and prostitution that dominated Angola’s inmate culture.
The Angola Panthers made a campaign against sexual slavery the centerpiece of their efforts to improve prison conditions. Realizing that disunity among inmates was the biggest obstacle to organizing against the authorities, the Panthers risked their lives to protect younger, weaker inmates from sexual predators.
Within a short time after its formation, the Angola Chapter of the Black Panther Party was attracting large crowds to its meetings on the yards. The Panthers held political education classes for their fellow inmates and organized their dormitories and tiers on a collective basis.
Of course, – the Panthers’ success in organizing inmates posed a grave threat to the corrupt administration of the prison. Angola, which is a massive amalgam of old plantations whose slaves came from the African country of the same name, was guarded by an all-white staff, many of whose families had lived on the prison grounds for several generations. Guards, or “free folk” as they are called, reflecting Angola’s slaveholding past, had devised many schemes by which to divert Angola’s resources for their own enrichment. Most notably, free folk often stole prison- grown food, which was intended for inmates’ mouths, and gave it to their families or sold it in town.
The Panthers worked to expose such graft, and, predictably, incurred the wrath of the good old boy administration. So, when Officer Miller turned up dead, stabbed 32 times, on April 17, 1972, Woodfox and Wallace were natural targets.
Only one person, an inmate named Hezekiah Brown, claimed to have witnessed the murder. Originally, he said he could not identify the killers, who were wearing handkerchiefs over their faces. However, after a few days of grilling by investigators (and, we now know,. the promise of a payoff), Brown identified’ Wallace and Woodfox, along with two other inmates, Chester Jackson and Gilbert Montegut, as the killers.
Woodfox was tried alone and convicted in 1973. The other three defendants were tried together. On the second day of trial, Chester’ Jackson returned from lunch with the prosecution team, announcing he had made a deal. After being allowed only a half hour to regroup, the defendants’ lawyer cross- examined his former client, Chester Jackson. Despite his obvious conflicts of interest, the defense attorney was forced to proceed, and Wallace was convicted. Montegut was acquainted. Even An ola’s then-warden, C. Murray Henderson, now admits that Montegut was framed for his perceived “militancy.”
In 1992, Woodfox finally succeeded in having his conviction overturned. Lacking a lawyer, his briefing was prepared by fellow Panther Robe@ “King” Wilkerson. (Wilkerson has also spent 27 years in isolation, convicted of killing a prison rapist).
When the state convened a grand jury to reindict Woodfox, it stacked the deck in its own favor. One of the grand jurors, Anne Butler, was married to C. Murray Henderson, the warden who presided over the original murder investigation. Together, the two had written a book about Angola, entitled Dying to Tell. The first chapter is about the Miller lolling, and it presumes the guilt of Woodfox and Wallace. Nevertheless, and despite Woodfox’s objections, Butler was allowed to serve on the grand jury. (in a bizarre case of poetic justice, Henderson was sentenced in January to 50 years, convicted of attempted murder alter shooting his wife, Anne Butler, five times.)
Woodfox’s December trial was marked by prejudicial testimony and an overwhelming lack of evidence. No physical evidence linked Woodfox or Wallace to the murder. A bloody fingerprint found near Millees body matched none of the defendants. Despite having on file the fingerprints of every Angola inmate, investigators made no effort to find out who the print belonged to.
Because they could produce no physical evidence, the prosecution relied on inflammatory evidence of Woodfox’s political beliefs, as well as the testimony of two inmates, both of whose credibility is in doubt. The state’s star witness was inmate Hezekiah Brown. Now dead, Brown testified at the original trials that he saw Woodfox, his face obscured, stab Miller. At December’s trial, his testimony was read to the jury. We now know that Brown was paid for this testimony. Internal DOC memoranda show that Warden Henderson promised Brown one carton of cigarettes per week in exchange for his testimony. In addition, by 1974, only five years after Brown had been sentenced to death for aggravated rape, the Warden, the District Attorney, the Deputy Sheriff, and other prosecution officials were campaigning for immediate and unconditional release for Brown. Brown finally received clemency, and was released, in 1986.
At Woodfox’s December trial, the state’s other star witness was inmate Leonard ‘Specs’ Turner. When he took the stand, Turner denied having any – information implicating Woodfox. However, the prosecution was allowed to impeach him with an unsigned, undated statement, in a guard’s handwriting, in which Turner allegedly stated that he saw Woodfox and Wallace fleeing the murder scene.
Facing the rest of his life in solitary confinement, Woodfox somehow maintains his spirit of unending struggle. Only hours after his sentencing, he said, “This revolutionary is as strong as ever, and will continue to baftle no matter what.”
For more information, or to offer support (especially legal help), contact the Angola 2 Support Committee, P.O. Box 15644, New Orleans, LA 70175, (504) 227-5946. The Prison Activist Resource Center is hosting an Angola 2 website at www.prisonactivist.org/angolatwo.