Angola 3 Dispatch: Albert Woodfox Hearing
Film crews, Angola prison guards, and more scenes from a New Orleans courtroom.
By Jordan Flaherty
Tue March 3, 2009 9:24 PM PST
On a brisk New Orleans morning, as hotel workers, attorneys, and the occasional tourist walked past, a small crowd gathered outside the US Court of Appeals on Camp Street in the city's central business district. They came from as far away as Maine and California, and as close as a few blocks away. They brought "I am Herman Wallace" and "I am Albert Woodfox" t-shirts, a documentary film crew, and a bubble-shaped van–donated by ice cream magnate Ben Cohen–that called for Wallace's and Woodfox's freedom. They were all here for a hearing of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals which would whether to uphold a federal judge's decision and let Woodfox to go free.
Standing out among the gathering, in a sharp suit and a deep baritone voice, was Parnell Herbert, an activist known in the local spoken word community as the "poetic panther." Herbert grew up with Woodfox, who has been in solitary confinement for 36 years. Displaced to Texas by Hurricane Katrina, he returns to New Orleans whenever there is movement in his friend's case. "I'm trying to draw attention to a situation the state of Louisiana wants to keep buried," he says. "We're here to show support for the truth."
It is rare for a prisoner to leave the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a former slave plantation; it's estimated that 95 percent of the inmates will die behind bars. (The day before the hearing, the Pew Center released a report(pdf) showing that one in 26 Louisiana adults is under correctional control, the largest percentage in the US and the world.) One who did make it out was Robert King, the third member of the Angola 3, released in 2001 after a judge overturned his conviction. "We hope this nightmare is finally ending," King told me at the hearing.
Inside the courtroom–a smallish room with grand, 50-foot-high ceilings–the front row held another type of Angola resident: guards, administrators, and their family members. "I asked Warden [Burl] Cain if anyone is running Angola," attorney Nick Trenticosta told me. "Because it seemed like everyone was here."
There was no courtroom spectacle or confrontation. Observers from both sides followed the proceedings with an intense and studious quiet, some taking notes. The hearing lasted about an hour. Lawyers for both sides made their case, occasionally interrupted by questions from the three-judge panel. "I was very encouraged by today's argument," Trenticosta told me later. "I think the court understands our case, and that's half our job."
After the hearing ended, supporters chatted, dissecting the proceedings. The court may take between four weeks and six months to release a ruling, but that time seems short compared to the decades the case has already taken. Even if the court lets stand the ruling overturning Woodfox's conviction, the state has already vowed to retry him. Still, among Woodfox's supporters–many of whom not yet born when he was last a free man–there was a palpable expectation of success. "Albert has hope," King told me. "And as long as Albert has hope, we all have hope."
A3 Supporters Brave the Cold to Speak Out
Angola 3 Action Hosts Another Classy and Creative A3 Event
About 3 dozen supporters gathered early on this unseasonably frigid morning wearing all black A3 T-shirts while a newly outfitted mobile billboard proclaiming "36 Years of Solitary, 36 Years of Innocence" circled the courthouse. The protest was peaceful, respectful, and well-matched to the formal tone of the hearing soon to begin.
A big thanks to Angola 3 Action for organizing the event: http://angola3action.org/; and to Loyola Law School for providing legal observers. I'll send out pictures later this week ;)
Was Albert Wrongfully Convicted?
A Short Summary of this A3 Day in Court
By the time many of us made it up to the courtroom, it was packed with ample representation from supporters of both camps. Two lines of spectators stood against the back wall for the duration of the hearing since all available seats were quickly filled. Many of the main characters from the State's team were present: Burl Cain, the Miller family, several Angola guards and residents (although none in uniform as in previous hearings), and of course Buddy Caldwell.
As advertised, the hearing was short and to the point. Both sides argued clearly and reasonably. None of the three judges shied away from questions--I counted almost 20 in the short 50 min proceeding. In fact the panel voluntarily allotted an additional 5 min to each side to account for how inquisitive they were. It was clear to anyone listening that the judges were all very well informed about the most minute details of the case; and reassuring that despite their intense questioning, there was nothing they asked that Albert's attorneys were not anticipating.
Since inadequate defense counsel is at the heart of Judge Brady's ruling, there was lively debate throughout as to whether it was even possible to discern in more than a purely speculative way whether the performance of Albert's 1998 legal team was "inadequate" or simply "unsuccessful." Nuances about the very definitions of legal concepts and precedents like "Brady" and "Strickland," as well as inconsistencies surrounding central pieces of evidence like the bloody fingerprint and eye-witnesses, were discussed in depth; but the the judges also took time to ask for clarification about less crucial points like the alibi witnesses in Albert's first trial.
Despite diligent, thoughtful, and tough questioning of both sides, the judges used words like "oversights," "mistakes," and "governmental mischief" when questioning the State about their case. Judge King was sure to remind the State when they directed her to read a certain page of the Magistrate's report that the judges were better prepared than the State seemed to think: "Oh, we have read it..." she said emphatically.
Now it is simply a waiting game. We expect the court to rule in 1-6 months, and are hopeful it will be sooner than later since they themselves "expedited" the process during the bail proceedings.
As a quick review, if the 5th Circuit agrees with Albert's attorneys and upholds Judge Brady's ruling, then the State has 120 days to either retry or release Albert. They have already vowed to retry him. If the 5th Circuit agrees with the State, then the conviction is reinstated and Albert would have to start the appeals process all over again with a different claim if he wants to try to gain his freedom. There are several other possible scenarios that could play out but those are the two most likely outcomes.
NPR, AP, Times Picayune, & Mother Jones
Please take a moment when time allows to review some of the media coverage of today's events.
NPR 's Laura Sullivan did another excellent piece, as did the always welcome AP and Times Picayune reporters.
The evening before the hearing Mother Jones posted a new investigative background piece on the case you might also want to check out.
Will update everyone as soon as anything new develops, and as always, thanks so much for all your support. Without it, Albert likely would have never made it this close to walking out of Angola a free man.
A3 Campaign Coordinator