Federal judge reverses Woodfox conviction; state will appeal

State appeal of Woodfox case planned

State Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said Wednesday that his office will appeal a federal judge’s decision to reverse Albert Woodfox’s 1998 conviction in the 1972 stabbing death of a guard at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

U.S. District Judge James Brady agreed Tuesday with Woodfox’s claim that his 1993 indictment by a West Feliciana Parish grand jury was tainted by discrimination in the grand jury foreperson selection process.

Brady noted in his ruling that only five of the 27 grand jury forepersons judicially selected in West Feliciana Parish between 1980 and March 1993 were black; the other 22 were white.

The judge said the state failed to convince him that “objective, race-neutral criteria” — such as education and employment — were used in the selection process.

Grand jury forepersons in Louisiana are now randomly selected, East Baton Rouge Parish First Assistant District Attorney Prem Burns said.

Woodfox, of New Orleans, a former member of the Black Panther Party, has been convicted twice of fatally stabbing Brent Miller, a 23-year-old guard, at the Angola prison .

“We are preparing our appeal now, and we are confident that the grand jury forepersons were appropriately picked and that the state will prevail and give this family peace after 40 years of dealing with this career criminal,” Caldwell said in a prepared statement.

Woodfox’s attorney, Nick Trenticosta, said he is confident the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will uphold Brady’s ruling.

“We’re extremely pleased with the judge’s ruling. We’re not surprised,” Trenticosta said via telephone.

“We look forward to a new trial and to Mr. Woodfox being exonerated.”

Woodfox’s first conviction in Miller’s death was overturned after he challenged the grand jury indictment.

Brady ruled in 2008 that Woodfox’s defense counsel in his retrial was ineffective. The judge ordered the state to try Woodfox for a third time or drop the case.

The 5th U.S. Circuit in 2010 reversed that order, saying Brady erred in concluding Woodfox had ineffective counsel in his second trial.

The appellate court sent the case back to Brady for a determination concerning the selection of the grand jury foreperson.

Woodfox, along with prisoner Herman Wallace and former inmate Robert 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.

The trio, who became known as the Angola 3 for spending decades in solitary confinement, set up demonstrations in the prison and organized strikes for better conditions there.

Woodfox and Wallace, who were serving 50-year sentences for armed robbery convictions when Miller was killed, were convicted of second-degree murder in separate trials during the 1970s in Miller’s slaying and were sentenced to life in prison.

Trenticosta, who also represents Wallace, said Wallace has an appeal pending before U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson.

Trenticosta said both men are from New Orleans.

Miller’s death occurred during a period of heightened security caused by an arson incident in which another security officer was injured two days earlier.

Eighteen days after Miller’s murder, Woodfox, Wallace and two other Angola inmates — Gilbert Montegut and Chester Jackson — were indicted by a West Feliciana Parish grand jury for that crime.

Montegut was acquitted at trial. Jackson pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter and testified against his co-defendants.

He died in prison in 1988.