Love and death in the South's bloodiest prison
Two Black Panthers were convicted in the 1972 stabbing of a newlywed guard at Angola, in Louisiana. Now, his widow - and others - aren't sure they did it.
By Miguel Bustillo
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
May 3, 2008
JEANERETTE, LA. — Thirty-six years have passed since she saw him last, but Leontine Verrett has never forgotten the face of the man she still calls her true love. His name was Brent Miller. He was lean and cocksure and strummed his guitar a little too loud.
Their romance blossomed on the grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the plantation turned prison built along a bend of the Mississippi River. He came from a clan where men had served as prison guards for generations. She was one of 12 children who moved there when their father got a job running the prison's sugar mill.
The lovers married on Feb. 5, 1972 -- he was 23, she was just 16. Two months later, the bride nicknamed Teenie got a call that there had been "an accident" at Angola, as the prison is known. She was a widow.
Miller had been stabbed 32 times and left in a prison dormitory in a pool of blood. Teenie's brother, who was also a guard, said Miller looked like he was wearing a red shirt. Horrified, he never returned to the job. Teenie soon learned that black militants stood accused of killing her husband, a random victim of what prison officials said was an inmate plot to murder a white man. She wanted the culprits to suffer and die. But unlike Miller's family, who crammed the courtrooms where the inmates were tried, she could not bear to sit and listen to the gruesome details.
"I didn't want to know," Verrett, now 52, said as her eyes misted up. "That was a lot to deal with at 17 years old. I trusted [the authorities] to do the right thing."
Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, Black Panthers from New Orleans who were serving time for armed robberies, were convicted of Miller's murder. The widow did her best to go on, moving to Jeanerette, an industrial town in the heart of Cajun country about two hours south of the prison. Two years later, she married Dean Verrett, who loved her despite her feelings for Miller, and they had three children. She began working at a beauty parlor, where she still works today.
Then 2 1/2 years ago, Billie Mizell, a legal investigator and fledgling author, showed up at Verrett's home near the banks of the Bayou Teche. She said she wanted to talk about Miller's murder.
What Mizell told Verrett stunned her. A bloody fingerprint found at the scene did not match Woodfox or Wallace. There was never any physical evidence linking them to the crime.
They'd been held in separate 6-by-9-foot cells for nearly every hour of every day. Supporters called their conditions solitary confinement; prison officials strongly disagreed. (The men were moved to a prison dormitory in March after nearly 36 years.)
Mizell said the star witness against Woodfox and Wallace, a repeat sex offender serving a life sentence, was promised freedom for his testimony -- a deal that the prosecution never disclosed to the defense. He was later transferred to another building where guards plied him with cigarettes, a prized jailhouse currency.
Verrett was skeptical. But she and Dean, who had also worked as an Angola guard, corroborated everything Mizell said by digging up court files and talking to friends and former co-workers.
After years of struggling with questions about the cold way prison authorities treated her when she sought compensation for her husband's death, issues she ignored as a teenager but that gnawed at her as an adult, she came to a troubling realization.
Maybe the militants, who had become an international cause celebre among liberal activists and human rights groups, were innocent.
"If I were on that jury," Verrett now says, "I don't think I would have convicted them."
The Louisiana State Penitentiary was infamous in the '60s and '70s as the bloodiest in the South, a place where guards routinely beat prisoners and inmates killed one another with crude knives. New Orleans musicians sang ominously about it like Greek poets evoking the underworld of Hades.
Called Angola after the birthplace of the slaves who worked there when it was a plantation, the prison drove inmates so hard that in 1952, 31 severed their own Achilles tendons in protest.
When Miller began working there two decades later, the guards were all white and the prisoners segregated. Wardens looked the other way when stronger inmates sold weaker ones as sex servants.
Wallace and Woodfox were part of a crew of socially conscious Black Panthers who challenged the Darwinian order by organizing opposition and telling victims they did not have to be "turned out," according to the two inmates and others who served in Angola at that time. That riled the prison strongmen as well as the guards, who let the sex trade flourish because it kept prisoners busy, inmates recalled.
"I had to fight corruption and the things being tolerated by the prison administration to control the population," Woodfox, 61, said in an interview. "When you saw the look on these kids' faces -- to see the spirit of another human being broken -- it affected the way you looked at life."
Angola was also in another kind of power struggle. Warden C. Murray Henderson was hired to reform the modern-day dungeon and end racial segregation. But associate warden Hayden Dees, a respected voice among the prison's workers, opposed changes.
When Miller was killed on April 17, 1972, some guards blamed Henderson because he had recently released dozens of rebellious inmates, including Black Panthers, from lockdown.
Within days of Miller's death, prison officials had identified four suspects: Woodfox, Wallace, Chester Jackson and Gilbert Montegut. Woodfox, the accused ringleader, was tried separately, the others together.
The cases rested on witness testimony from other prisoners. The most crucial came from a repeat rapist named Hezekiah Brown. He first said he knew nothing of the murder, but after guards summoned him for more questioning, his story changed.
Brown, then 66, testified that he was preparing a cup of coffee for Miller when the men entered and began stabbing the guard. He said he fled after he was left unharmed. Based on that account, Woodfox was convicted of murder in 1973.
In the 1974 trial of the other men, Wallace was convicted, Montegut was acquitted and Jackson decided to testify for the prosecution, after he was apparently promised a reduced charge. Under pressure to help secure a conviction, Henderson pledged to Brown that he would get him out of prison, and later lobbied to make it happen, a deal that did not become public until two decades later.
Brown's sentence was commuted by Gov. Edwin Edwards in 1986.
Since the convictions, after prodding by attorneys and activists, supporting witnesses who claimed they saw Wallace and Woodfox leaving the scene have recanted, saying they were pressured by prison officials to testify -- and a former inmate has come forward to assert that another militant killed Miller.
Billy Wayne Sinclair, an award-winning prison journalist, was honored in 1980 by the American Bar Assn. for a story about inmate Irvin "Life" Breaux, who was killed after trying to stop a prison rape.
What Sinclair did not write, for fear it would hurt his chances of release, was that his friend "Life" had earlier confided that he stabbed Miller. Breaux described Miller as a "casualty of war" who walked in as militant inmates were hiding knives they planned to use to kill "Uncle Tom" black prisoners, said Sinclair. Breaux said Woodfox and Wallace were innocent, Sinclair now claims.
"He was telling me, sometimes people have to die to further the struggle, but Miller was not supposed to die," said Sinclair, a white inmate leader who grew close to Breaux after they helped integrate Angola without bloodshed in 1973. "He also told me that the free people [prison guards] knew what he had done."
In a twist of fate, Henderson, who left his post as Angola warden in the 1970s, was sent to a Louisiana prison years later after he tried to kill his wife. He was slowed by gout and needed assistance bathing -- and Sinclair, who had been transferred to the prison, helped. One day Sinclair said he asked him about the Miller case.
"I told him, you know damn well those guys didn't kill that free man that April morning," said Sinclair, 63, who is out of prison and living in Texas. "I wanted to get an acknowledgment . . . and he never said a thing to refute it."
The former warden died in prison in 2004.
Wallace and Woodfox had spent their days in separate cells, conversing with others through cracks in walls. After being placed in isolation almost immediately after the murder, they were allowed about an hour a day in the yard when other prisoners were inside. Two months ago, prison authorities released them into a dormitory with other maximum-security inmates. Officials did not explain why.
The move came less than a week after the head of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), traveled to Angola to meet with the men. He released a statement expressing concern that they may be innocent, and noted that they had been in isolation for "possibly a longer period than any other inmate in U.S. history."
Two years ago, a state judicial commissioner recommended that Wallace's conviction be reversed on grounds that Louisiana withheld evidence favorable to him, giving his lawyers hope that the 66-year- old inmate would be freed. The case is before a state appeals court.
Woodfox faces far tougher hurdles. His murder conviction was overturned a decade ago. But he was retried and convicted in 1998, based again on Brown's earlier testimony, which was read into the record because Brown had died. Woodfox's attorneys are asking a federal court to reexamine his case.
"I have come to accept the fact that I may not survive to see a day out in society. But the way I see it, it's been worth it," Woodfox said. "It's worth fighting against injustice and inequality."
Woodfox, Wallace and another inmate are also pursuing a civil case against Angola, alleging inhumane treatment. Current warden Burl Cain, who has widely been credited with improving living conditions and ensuring that elderly inmates die with dignity, declined to discuss the ex-Black Panthers' imprisonment. But state officials have strenuously maintained that the isolation of Woodfox and Wallace did not constitute solitary confinement, noting that the inmates had televisions and limited human contact.
For more than a decade, activist groups including Amnesty International have complained about the treatment of Wallace and Woodfox, and the British founders of the Body Shop chain of beauty products have long championed their cause. Mizell, who's writing a book on the case, started working for the men's defense team after she became convinced they were innocent.
Verrett sometimes sits and looks at weathered pictures of Miller and herself. In hindsight, she believes state officials were trying to keep details of his death from coming to light, for fear that the public would learn that the evidence against Woodfox and Wallace was threadbare at best.
She remembered that two years after Miller's murder, she had tried to hire attorneys to file a claim against the state, seeking compensation -- a standard practice when guards are injured, much less killed. Prison officials became distant, and she eventually abandoned the case.
All she wants now is "justice for Brent," she said. She's not sure he's ever gotten it.