Wallace faced new trial in guard’s killing
Herman Wallace, who spent two days outside of prison this week after decades of solitary confinement and a long, widely publicized struggle to clear his name in a murder he said he did not commit, died Friday. He was 71.
Nick Trenticosta, one member of a legal team that had finally earned Wallace a release from prison and a new trial, confirmed that Wallace succumbed to liver cancer at a friend’s home in Uptown New Orleans on Friday morning.
Since the early 1970s, when Wallace was convicted of killing a guard while serving time for armed robbery, he was considered part of a trio known as the Angola Three, named for the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola where they spent much of their lives. All of them were former Black Panthers who maintained they were wrongly accused because of their activism.
Albert Woodfox, who was convicted along with Wallace in the stabbing death of a young guard named Brent Miller in 1972, remains incarcerated. Robert King, another Black Panther from New Orleans who was convicted of a separate murder inside Angola and also placed in solitary confinement, won his release in 2001 after 29 years.
In a joint statement on Friday, Wallace’s legal team said, “Herman endured what very few of us can imagine, and he did it with grace, dignity, and empathy to the end.
“He remained committed to standing up for himself and his fellow prisoners, including Albert Woodfox who is still kept in harsh solitary confinement conditions in a Louisiana prison,” they continued. “Despite the cruelty Herman was shown, he had no hatred in his heart.”
Although a judge on Tuesday ordered Wallace’s release from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, where he had been undergoing treatment for cancer, the fight to clear his name had not ended. A West Feliciana Parish grand jury reindicted Wallace on the original murder charge Thursday, and a younger brother of the slain guard said in an interview this week that Wallace never should have been released, even in such poor health.
Wallace was born in New Orleans on Oct. 3, 1941, the fourth of eight children, according to a statement released Friday by his attorneys. His mother, Edna Clark Williams, worked at the Orleans Parish Prison.
In a recent documentary that aired on PBS, Wallace described an early life gone awry. “We were, you know, doing a lot of negative (expletive)” he said. “Stuff that I’m not even proud of today, and I apologize greatly for the things that I’ve done.”
He was convicted of armed robbery in 1971 at age 30 and sentenced to spend 50 years in Angola.
Wallace got there at the height of the prison’s reputation for bloodshed and other depredations. A lawsuit filed on his behalf in 2009 described brutal treatment by an all-white guard staff, “sexual slavery” among prisoners and crumbling, unsanitary facilities.
Along with Woodfox, he formed a chapter of the Black Panther Party and agitated for better conditions. Wallace, according to the lawsuit, “and other reform-minded inmates would work with new prisoners — who were particularly vulnerable to being abused and forced into sex slavery — to try to keep them safe.”
It was their activism, they later claimed, that doomed them when Miller, a young guard who had just been married, was found dead, stabbed 32 times with a makeshift knife while most prisoners were eating breakfast.
None of the scant physical evidence in the case, which amounted to little more than a knife and a bloody fingerprint, tied Wallace or Woodfox to the murder. They were convicted and sentenced to life by an all-male, all-white jury based on eyewitness testimony from other prisoners.
From then on, prison officials kept both men on lockdown, confined to 6-by-9-foot cells for 23 hours a day, allowed outside only three times a week for exercise.
King, another Black Panther, later joined them in solitary confinement after being convicted of killing a fellow inmate in a separate case.
Over the decades, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and a network of friends and family in New Orleans have kept the Angola Three in the spotlight, the subject of lawsuits, reports on “cruel and unusual punishment” and documentary films.
After King got his conviction overturned in 2001, he began traveling widely to talk about the case outside the U.S.
Not everyone felt the Angola Three were mistreated. In an interview with The Times-Picayune in 2002, warden Burl Cain pointed out that both Wallace and Woodfox had escaped from prison before, and he called them “crybabies” for complaining about their treatment.
“Public safety and the safety of my security staff is what we’re all about first, and their comfort level is second,” Cain told the newspaper. “And you can look at their record. Their conduct record doesn’t warrant them living in population, where they’d have more opportunity to figure out some breach of security.”
Wallace arrived back in the news this summer after he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and given little time to live. He filed for a compassionate release, while friends and attorneys gave interviews condemning the state for allowing a terminally ill man to spend his last few weeks in a prison hospital.
Trenticosta, a member of Wallace’s legal team, told Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC that Wallace had lost 55 pounds because of his condition and was “being killed through intentional neglect.”
However, it was not state officials who eventually set Wallace free, but U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson, who dismissed Wallace’s 40-year-old indictment this week on the grounds that officials violated the U.S. Constitution by excluding women from the jury.
Even then, prosecutors sought to keep Wallace locked up, asking Jackson and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to grant a stay of the release order pending an appeal.
Hardy Miller, a brother of the guard Wallace was accused of murdering, said he also thought Wallace should stay in prison, even if he was dying.
“Brent didn’t have another trial,” he said, referring to his brother. “He just got jumped by a bunch of men who killed him.”
By the time Wallace did emerge from prison in the back of an ambulance, he was unable to communicate much, according to friends.
Norris Henderson, a local activist who spent nearly three decades in Angola himself, visited Wallace at LSU Medical Center, where he stayed briefly before entering hospice care at a friend’s house. Henderson said simply, “It was good to see him, in spite of the circumstances. It was just good to see him. He’s out of prison.”
And even after more than four decades, Henderson said he took the dramatic last-minute release as a vindication.
“When someone gets out of prison, that’s a sign that, OK, we’re making some progress,” he said. “We’re covering some ground. I hope he’s not the last one.”