ST. FRANCISVILLE, La. – Louisiana's attorney general asked a federal appeals court Tuesday to block the release of Albert Woodfox, the last of the so-called Angola 3 prisoners who spent years in solitary confinement.
Attorney General Buddy Caldwell's request to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans came a day after U.S. District Judge James Brady issued a strongly worded ruling that "the only just remedy" is the immediate and unconditional release of Woodfox.
Brady, based in Baton Rouge, said that the Black Panther organizer, now 68 years old, should not face a third trial in the stabbing death of a prison guard. His two previous convictions were overturned, and Woodfox has long maintained his innocence in that death in 1972, when inmates were protesting conditions inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
It was unclear when the appeals court might rule.
Woodfox is one of three men dubbed the "Angola 3" by supporters protesting their long stints in solitary confinement. Supporters say he is being punished for a history of political activism, but Caldwell insisted otherwise.
"We are hopeful that the Court of Appeals will grant this stay, for the sake of the families of his victims and the multiple juries and grand juries that independently determined that this inmate should be held accountable for his multiple crimes," Caldwell spokesman Aaron Sadler said in a statement.
Both of Woodfox's convictions were overturned because of racial prejudice and lack of evidence.
Woodfox is currently being held at the West Feliciana Parish Detention Center in St. Francisville, where he was transferred in preparation for a third trial.
Woodfox is "guardedly hopeful," said his attorney, George Kendall, who met with him inside the jail Tuesday. Woodfox has been through arduous court fights before and "understands how the system works," Kendall said.
Kendall said he did not know when Woodfox might be released, but he expects a ruling on the state's appeal within 48 hours.
"Judge Brady was correct in granting this release. There is no way possible for the state to afford a fair trial in this case because nearly all of the critical witnesses are dead," Kendall said. "This case ought to end."
Angela Bell, an assistant professor of legal writing and analysis at Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, said she talked with Woodfox on Monday night. She said he's been suffering increasing panic attacks, exacerbating other health problems including diabetes.
"He does not allow himself to be very optimistic about things. I think that that is a coping mechanism that he has developed. But we talk often about the power of prayer and the ability of God to deliver miracles. And I do believe that he believes that that is possible," Bell said.
In his ruling, Brady cited doubt the state could provide a fair third trial; the inmate's age and poor health; the unavailability of witnesses; "the prejudice done onto Mr. Woodfox by spending over forty years in solitary confinement"; and "the very fact that Mr. Woodfox has already been tried twice" before his convictions were overturned.
Amnesty International and the United Nations have condemned Woodfox's imprisonment as inhumane. Human rights advocates contend his solitary confinement is a form of torture.
Jasmine Heiss, a senior campaigner with Amnesty International USA, called Brady's ruling "a momentous step toward justice."
Woodfox was one of several prisoners accused of killing of Brent Miller, a 23-year-old guard at the prison. A year earlier, Woodfox and Herman Wallace helped establish a prison chapter of the Black Panther Party, while Robert King helped establish a Black Panther chapter in the New Orleans prison.
All three were active in hunger strikes and work stoppages that spurred improvements to prison conditions, and all three suffered harsh treatment thereafter as prison authorities kept them isolated at Angola to prevent more disruption behind bars.
Wallace died last fall, days after a judge freed him and granted him a new trial. King has become a public speaker since his release in 2001 after the reversal of his conviction in the death of a fellow inmate in 1973.
Burdeau reported from New Orleans. Associated Press Writers Kevin McGill and Rebecca Santana in New Orleans contributed to this report.