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Will Justice Kennedy Save Albert Woodfox?

The case against Woodfox is one of the most exceptional cases of systemic injustice you are ever likely to see.

Published: November 11, 2015

It now is clear beyond all doubt that state judges in Louisi­ana, and a major­ity of the federal appel­late judges who over­see that juris­dic­tion, are never going to let aging, ill, uncon­victed Albert Wood­fox spend a day of free­dom no matter how dubi­ous the capital case is against him. Wood­fox, who has spent more than 40 years in solit­ary confine­ment in the notori­ous Angola prison for a crime many are convinced he did not commit, lost another round in court Monday night when the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded by a 2–1 vote that his cause did not merit “excep­tional” relief. The truth is that the case against Wood­fox, the surviv­ing member of the “Angola 3,” is one of the most “excep­tional” cases of systemic injustice you are ever likely to see.

Wood­fox’s attor­ney told me late Monday night that he plans to appeal the 5th Circuit ruling to the United States Supreme Court. This means that Justice Anthony Kennedy will have yet another oppor­tun­ity to put into prac­tice the lofty words he wrote last spring when he denounced solit­ary confine­ment in a strik­ing concur­rence in Davis v. Ayala. Indeed, 5th Circuit Judge James Dennis, the lone dissenter in the Wood­fox case, seemed to be writ­ing directly to Justice Kennedy when he described the context in which Wood­fox’s claims were rejec­ted by the major­ity:

If ever a case justi­fi­ably could be considered to present “excep­tional circum­stances” barring re-prosec­u­tion, this is that case. For more than four decades, Albert Wood­fox has been solit­ar­ily confined to a nine-by-six foot cell for 23 hours each day. During the single hour of the day that Wood­fox is permit­ted outside his compact single cell, he also must remain in solitude.

At all times, there­fore, Wood­fox remains in unmit­ig­ated isol­a­tion—des­pite being a model pris­oner who is now 68 years old and in frail health suffer­ing from an onslaught of life-short­en­ing condi­tions includ­ing heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, high blood pres­sure, and a liver ailment that puts him at a high risk for devel­op­ing cancer.

Although the State of Louisi­ana has subjec­ted Wood­fox to these harsh condi­tions for the 1972 murder of Brent Miller, the State has twice tried and twice failed to obtain a consti­tu­tion­ally valid convic­tion of Wood­fox. In other words, for the vast major­ity of his life, Wood­fox has spent nearly every waking hour in a cramped cell in crush­ing solitude without a valid convic­tion to justify what Justice Kennedy recently described as the “terrible price” paid by those suffer­ing “[y]ears on end of near-total isol­a­tion.”

What has happened in the Wood­fox case is not diffi­cult to under­stand. Wood­fox is a black man accused of killing a white prison guard in 1972. Perhaps worse, for purposes of Louisi­ana justice, he is accused of having joined the Black Panther Party and having led prison protests against segreg­a­tion and other living condi­tions at Angola. The first convic­tion against him was over­turned because of the woeful work of his trial attor­ney. The second convic­tion was over­turned because of prosec­utorial miscon­duct and racial bias at the grand jury stage of the case. After each of these defeats prosec­utors could have simply stopped trying to pin the murder on Wood­fox (the evid­ence against him was never strong and is even weaker today). At every stage state judges could have said “enough” and ordered his release. And yet there he remains: a pris­oner without a valid convic­tion against him.

The Wood­fox case is a symbol of white suprem­acy, insti­tu­tional racism, and the hollow­ness of appel­late review in juris­dic­tions like Louisi­ana (which did the same thing to Herman Wallace and Glenn Ford and count­less other black men who got caught up in the system). The state finally gave up and released Wallace just a few days before he died. It gave up and released Ford after he got cancer in confine­ment — Ford lasted only a few months on the outside and died know­ing Louisi­ana refused to compensate him for a wrong­ful convic­tion. And the Supreme Court, expli­citly or impli­citly, allowed all of this to happen.

Which brings us back to Justice Kennedy. The ordeal of the pris­oner who piqued the Justice’s interest in Davis v. Ayala, a man named Hector Ayala, has spent less than half the time in solit­ary confine­ment that Albert Wood­fox has spent. And it is clear that the evid­ence against Ayala is at least twice as strong as is the evid­ence (what’s left of it) against Wood­fox. If ever there were a case in which the length of isol­ated deten­tion (much of which was spent without the penalty of a valid convic­tion, remem­ber) creates the “excep­tional” circum­stance warrant­ing relief, this is it. The Wood­fox case has meant many things to many differ­ent people in the 40-plus years in which it has circu­lated through our justice systems. We ought to know soon what it, and the fight against solit­ary confine­ment, really mean to Justice Kennedy.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.

(Photo: Flickr/DerekKey)