James Gill: Justice a bit late for Angola Three

Last week, a federal magistrate recommended that his appeal be rejected, but that isn’t going to make much difference to Herman Wallace, one of the so-called Angola Three.

These are the Black Panthers who were consigned to permanent and allegedly unconstitutional solitary confinement after a prison guard was murdered in 1972.

Another one of them, Albert Woodfox, successfully challenged his conviction in federal court several months ago, but state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell is not about to let him out.

Prospects for Wallace are bleaker yet. Recently transferred to a prison hospital dorm with a liver cancer that is expected to kill him in two months, he seems to have no hope of release unless Amnesty International succeeds in persuading Gov. Bobby Jindal to order it on humanitarian grounds.

Wallace has always claimed to be innocent, but, even without the latest setback, he wouldn’t have had enough time left to prove it in court, let alone wait for Caldwell to open the door.

Whatever reserves of compassion lurk in Jindal’s breast, moreover, are unlikely to be squandered on a convicted murderer.

Chances are that the question of whether justice was done in his case will be left hanging when Wallace dies.

What we can say is that he got the kind of trial a black prison inmate could expect in a Louisiana court. It featured conflicting and apparently suborned testimony from other prisoners, suppressed statements and no evidence that the blood and fingerprints found on the murder weapon were his.

Caldwell and Angola Warden Burl Cain nevertheless vehemently defend the convictions of Wallace and Woodfox, who was tried separately.

When Woodfox’s habeas corpus petition was granted, Caldwell immediately filed an appeal. If the appeals court rules against him, Caldwell vows to try Woodfox again so, if he gets out at all, it won’t be for a long while.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International is in for a disappointment if it expects Wallace’s plight to elicit any sympathy from the state of Louisiana. Nobody is going to fret if he dies in prison, because that was the plan all along.

Still, the barbarous treatment of the Angola Three — the other one, Robert King, was released in 2001 — will continue to earn Louisiana international opprobrium.

You don’t find many choirboys doing time in Angola, and it can hardly be denied that the Three were pretty rough characters. Woodfox and Wallace were armed robbers, while King had a string of convictions for lesser offenses.

They were quickly tagged as troublemakers after arriving at Angola, which had earned a reputation as the bloodiest prison in America. Inmates raped and stabbed one another, and guards cracked skulls, at every opportunity. The Black Panthers organized strikes in protest.

When a young guard, Brent Miller, was found dead with multiple stab wounds, suspicion naturally fell on the Black Panthers and convictions quickly followed.

Although King was not charged with the murder, prison authorities decided that all three were such a threat to order that they should be kept in isolation.

Cain, in a 2008 deposition, said he would keep Woodfox in solitary even if he were innocent of Miller’s murder.

Woodfox and Wallace filed a civil lawsuit 10 years ago alleging cruel and unusual punishment, and a federal magistrate noted that nothing “remotely comparable” could be found “in the annals of America jurisprudence.” But Wallace will be dead long before the case reaches court.

As for his murder conviction, it is just possible that Judge Brian Jackson will reject the magistrate’s recommendation, but that would still leave the state with the option of an appeal. And this is a circuit generally described as “conservative,” so jailbird rights are not a priority.

Wallace’s appeals cut no ice with the state courts, although his trial was clearly unfair. The principal witness against him, a prisoner called Hezekiah Brown, told the jury, “Nobody promised me nothing.”

In fact, he was given a TV, cigarettes and other treats to enjoy until his pardon came through.

A bloody footprint found at the scene was not a match for Wallace or Woodfox, and other evidence went missing.

Now, four years after Wallace filed his habeas corpus petition, he has a response. Federal Magistrate Stephen Riedlinger has found that Wallace’s attorney, who was evidently out of his depth, knew that Brown had a deal. Riedlinger found that no federal violation had been established sufficient to have changed the outcome of the trial.

Still, letting Wallace spend his last days in a hospice could cause no harm. But perhaps it is a little late to bring humanity into the story of the Angola Three.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.