After an astounding 41 years spent in solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison, Herman Wallace, 71, one of the famous “Angola 3,” who is dying of cancer, was released from prison yesterday after U.S. District Chief Judge Brian Jackson overturned Wallace’s 1974 murder conviction for the death of a prison guard.
Wallace, of New Orleans, had already been serving a 50-year armed robbery sentence when 23-year-old prison guard Brent Miller was fatally stabbed in 1972. After Wallace and two other inmates were convicted in Miller’s death, authorities moved the three of them to isolation at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
Wallace and the two other inmates came to be known as the “Angola 3” after a fellow Black Panther member in the late 1990s discovered the many decades they had spent in isolation.
Wallace was moved to “closed-cell restriction” at Hunt Correctional in St. Gabriel in 2009, and recently was placed in the prison’s hospital unit.
Last year, Amnesty International USA delivered a petition to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office that contained 65,000 signatures from people around the world who called the men’s solitary confinement inhuman and degrading.
After Judge Jackson in Baton Rouge denied the state’s motion seeking to block his earlier order overturning Wallace’s murder conviction, the 71-year-old was released yesterday.
Jackson had ordered a new trial because women were unconstitutionally excluded from the grand jury that indicted Wallace in the guard’s death.
“The record in this case makes clear that Mr Wallace’s grand jury was improperly chosen… and that the Louisiana courts, when presented with the opportunity to correct this error, failed to do so,” Judge Jackson wrote in his decision. “Our Constitution requires this result even where, as here, it means overturning Mr. Wallace’s conviction nearly forty years after it was entered.”
Wallace’s legal team said he left a correctional center in St. Gabriel by ambulance Tuesday evening and was expected to go to LSU Interim Hospital in New Orleans for treatment of advanced terminal liver cancer.
“Tonight, Herman Wallace has left the walls of Louisiana prisons and will be able to receive the medical care that his advanced liver cancer requires,” his team said in a statement.
Steven W. Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International, said he welcomed the court’s ruling.
“Tragically, this step toward justice has come as Herman is dying from cancer with only days or hours left to live,” he said in a statement. “No ruling can erase the cruel, inhuman and degrading prison conditions he endured for more than 41 years.”
George Kendall, one of Wallace’s attorneys, told The Associated Press that the judge’s decision gives Wallace “some measure of justice after a lifetime of injustice.”
“He’s pleased,” Kendall said of Wallace’s reaction after hearing of Tuesday’s ruling, “but he’s quite ill.”
Kendall said Wallace, whose birthday is Oct. 13, “ceased receiving treatment a couple of weeks ago.”
The state has filed notice that it would appeal Jackson’s ruling. Wallace has asked his attorneys even after he dies to continue to press the lawsuit challenging his “unconstitutional confinement in solitary confinement for four decades.”
“It is Mr. Wallace’s hope that this litigation will help ensure that others, including his lifelong friend and fellow `Angola 3′ member, Albert Woodfox, do not continue to suffer such cruel and unusual confinement even after Mr. Wallace is gone,” his legal team said in a written statement.
Kendall said Woodfox won full habeas relief last year but the state has appealed that as well. The case is pending before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Woodfox is currently in solitary at the David Wade Correctional Center in Homer, La., where he was moved in 2010.
Both Woodfox and Wallace have continued to deny involvement in Miller’s killing, claiming they were targeted because they helped establish a prison chapter of the Black Panther Party at the Angola prison in 1971, including setting up demonstrations and organizing strikes for better conditions in the prison.