Louisiana can keep "Angola Three" inmate Albert Woodfox in jail and continue its plans to try him a third time in the 1972 killing of a prison guard, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.
The 2-1 decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reverses a June order by U.S. District Judge James Brady that ordered Woodfox's release. And the judge had barred a third trial, saying the state could not try Woodfox fairly more than 40 years after the stabbing death of guard Brent Miller.
The 5th Circuit disagreed.
"The district court abused its discretion by barring retrial and by granting the extraordinary remedy of an unconditional writ," Judge Carolyn Dineen King wrote for the majority. She was joined by Judge Priscilla Owen.
Judge James L. Dennis, in a dissent, said Brady's ruling should be upheld. "If ever a case justifiably could be considered to present `exceptional circumstances' barring reprosecution, this is that case," Dennis wrote.
Neither the state attorney general's office, which supports another trial, or Woodfox's supporters immediately responded to requests for comment.
Woodfox is the last still-incarcerated member of a group that supporters dubbed the Angola Three for their decades-long stays in isolation at the Louisiana Penitentiary at Angola and other state prisons. The men said they were targeted for joining the Black Panther Party and advocating for prison reforms.
Woodfox, 68, has consistently maintained his innocence in Miller's death. He is being held at the West Feliciana Parish Detention Center.
He is believed to have spent more time in solitary confinement than nearly any other prisoner in U.S. penal history. He suffers from heart disease, renal failure and hepatitis C, his lawyers say.
Brady had noted that 43 years have passed since the crime, key witnesses have died and there is no physical evidence linking Woodfox to the stabbing.
Woodfox's previous convictions in Miller's death were overturned for reasons including racial bias in selecting a grand jury foreman.
Woodfox was serving time for armed robbery and assault when he was convicted in Miller's killing. Inmates identified him as the one who grabbed the guard from behind while others stabbed Miller with a lawnmower blade and a hand-sharpened prison knife.
But the star witness, a serial rapist who left death row and was pardoned by the Louisiana governor after his testimony, died before the second trial. His testimony could still be read to jurors.
Another Angola Three inmate, Herman Wallace died in 2013, less than a week after a judge freed him and granted him a new trial.
The third member, Robert King, who was convicted of killing a fellow inmate in 1973, was released in 2001 after his conviction was reversed.
The Associated Press