A U.S. appeals court on Friday granted Louisiana's request to block the immediate release of the last of the so-called Angola 3 prisoners, a man who has spent most of four decades in solitary confinement for the 1972 killing of a prison guard.
U.S. District Judge James Brady on Monday ordered Albert Woodfox's release, in part on the grounds that his two convictions in the death of Brent Miller, a white prison guard, were both overturned. Brady also took the extraordinary step of barring a third trial for Woodfox, whose previous convictions were overturned for reasons including racial bias in selecting a grand jury foreman and juror misconduct.
“There is no valid conviction holding him in prison, let alone solitary confinement," Brady ruled on Monday.
But the state persuaded the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to temporarily stay the judge's order. By Friday, the appellate judges ordered Woodfox held until at least the last week of August, when a hearing was scheduled on the state's appeal.
"There is a substantial interest in staying the release of a person, twice convicted of murder, from being released from a life sentence without the possibility of parole," the court wrote.
"We will continue to challenge the right of the state to hold Mr. Woodfox, an elderly man in failing health, in the harshest possible solitary confinement conditions and work to get the medical care he urgently needs at a proper medical facility," said his attorneys, George Kendall and Carine Williams.
The decision caps a tumultuous week in a decades-long case that has focused international attention on the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.
Woodfox, 68, is the last of three African-American inmates who gained notoriety for their long stays in isolation at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. The men said they were targeted for joining the Black Panther Party and advocating for prison reforms.
He is believed to have spent more time in solitary confinement than nearly any other prisoner in U.S. penal history. After 43 years in prison, he suffers from heart disease, renal failure and hepatitis C, his lawyers say.
Woodfox, initially incarcerated on an armed robbery charge, and a co-defendant, Herman Wallace, maintained their innocence in Miller's slaying. Woodfox was placed in solitary immediately after Miller's body was found in an empty prison dormitory, and then was ordered kept on "extended lockdown" every 90 days for decades. Prison authorities said their Black Panther Party activism would otherwise rile up other inmates at the maximum-security prison farm in Angola.
"Judge Brady's decision to grant him unconditional release should have certainly ended this 43-year-long nightmare," said Steven Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA, which has campaigned for his release.
Wallace, who spent nearly 42 years in isolation, won his freedom in October 2013 but died of liver cancer three days after his release.
The third Angola 3 inmate, Robert King, was accused of killing a fellow inmate. He was released from prison in 2001.