NEW ORLEANS — Lawyers for the state of Louisiana asked a federal appeals court Tuesday to reinstate the conviction of inmate Albert Woodfox in the 1972 stabbing death of a prison guard, despite objections from human rights activists who have long said the state's case is flawed and that Woodfox has suffered from decades of solitary confinement.
Woodfox is one of the inmates supporters dubbed the "Angola Three," owing to their long stretches in isolation at the state penitentiary in Angola. Herman Wallace, convicted with Woodfox of murder in the death of guard Brent Miller, died last fall only days after a judge freed him and granted him a new trial.
The third "Angola Three" member, Robert King, who was convicted of killing a fellow inmate in 1973, was released in 2001 after his conviction was reversed. Sporting a yellow scarf with the words "Justice for Albert Woodfox," King was among dozens of Woodfox supporters who packed the main courtroom and filled part of an overflow courtroom to hear arguments before a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In 2010, Woodfox was moved to the David Wade Correctional Center in Homer, where he remains in custody. "He's still being held in solitary confinement," King said in a brief interview following the procedures.
Woodfox and Wallace have said they were singled out for harsh treatment because of their political activism. Woodfox, Wallace and King joined the Black Panthers after arriving at the Angola prison in the late 1960s and began organizing a prison chapter of the group in 1971.
Amnesty International and a United Nations human rights expert have called for an end to Woodfox's isolation. His supporters have called the case against him deeply flawed and say there was no physical evidence linking him to Miller's death. However, the merits of the case against him were not at issue Tuesday.
At issue was whether U.S. District Judge James Brady ruled correctly last year when he agreed with Woodfox's claim that his 1993 indictment by a West Feliciana Parish grand jury was tainted by discrimination in the grand jury foreman selection process.
Arguing for Attorney General Buddy Caldwell's office, attorney Rick Stanley said the evidence did not support Brady's decision to throw out the conviction. And he said the overall grand jury process was fair, citing the makeup of the 1993 panel that indicted Woodfox: five black women, three white women and three white men. "The grand jury itself was racially well represented," he said.
Carine Williams, representing Woodfox, argued that Brady was correct in ruling that the state failed to show that "objective, race-neutral criteria" — such as education and employment — were used in the selection process. That process, she noted, resulted in only five of 27 foremen selected for grand juries in West Feliciana between 1980 and 1993 were black — and only one selected by the judge who presided in Woodfox's case was black. African-Americans made up 44 percent of the parish population at the time, she said.
The judges in the case were Patrick Higginbotham and Leslie Southwick, who were present in the courtroom, and E. Grady Jolly, who listened to arguments remotely from Jackson, Miss. The court gave no reason for his absence from the courtroom. There was no indication when the panel would rule.