NEW ORLEANS – Louisiana can keep "Angola Three" inmate Albert Woodfox in jail and continue its plans to try him a third time in the 1972 killing of a prison guard, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.
The 2-1 decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reverses a June order by U.S. District Judge James Brady that ordered Woodfox's release and barred a third trial, saying the state could not try Woodfox fairly more than 40 years after the killing of guard Brent Miller.
The 5th Circuit disagreed.
"The district court abused its discretion by barring retrial and by granting the extraordinary remedy of an unconditional writ," Judge Carolyn Dineen King wrote for the majority. She was joined by Judge Priscilla Owen.
Woodfox, 68, has consistently maintained his innocence in Miller's death. He is being held at the West Feliciana Parish Detention Center. He is the last still-incarcerated member of a group that supporters dubbed the "Angola Three" for their decades-long stays in isolation at the Louisiana Penitentiary at Angola and other state prisons.
Miller's widow, Teenie Rogers, has also pressed for Woodfox's release, saying she no longer believes he was responsible. And Amnesty International and the United Nations have condemned Woodfox's imprisonment as inhumane. Human rights advocates call it a form of torture.
Judge James L. Dennis, in a dissent, said Brady's ruling should be upheld. "If ever a case justifiably could be considered to present `exceptional circumstances' barring reprosecution, this is that case," Dennis wrote.
In an email, Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell's office, said they were reviewing the ruling "and are continuing to move forward with retrial based on this decision." Caldwell's office has denied that Woodfox was held in strict solitary confinement and said Woodfox has been allowed visitors and reading material, could see a television through cell bars and can communicate with others.
Woodfox's attorney, George Kendall, said in a statement they were disappointed with the ruling.
"As the dissent points out, these truly are extraordinary circumstances and the state of Louisiana, who continues to hold Mr. Woodfox in solitary confinement, can no longer provide a fair trial," he said.
Brady had noted that 43 years have passed since the crime, key witnesses have died and there is no physical evidence linking Woodfox to the stabbing.
Woodfox's previous convictions in Miller's death were overturned for reasons including racial bias in selecting a grand jury foreman.
Woodfox was serving time for armed robbery and assault when he was convicted in Miller's killing. Inmates identified him as the one who grabbed the guard from behind while others stabbed Miller with a lawnmower blade and a hand-sharpened prison knife.
But the star witness, a serial rapist who left death row and was pardoned by the Louisiana governor after his testimony, died before the second trial. His testimony could still be read to jurors.