After more than 40 years in solitary confinement and most of his life spent behind bars, a man whose conviction for murder has been a source of controversy for decades is now poised to die in confinement. Herman Wallace’s story started with a murder conviction as part of the famous Angola 3 — politically active Black Panthers who were convicted in the murder of a beloved white prison guard solely on the testimony of four inmate witnesses, one of whom was legally blind, and another a known prison snitch who was rewarded for his testimony.
His story continued as he and his fellow defendant spent an incomprehensible 40-plus years in solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison — among the longest terms imposed for the inhumane treatment. One of his co-defendants, Robert King, had his conviction overturned in 2001 after 29 years in solitary confinement. The other, Albert Woodfox, has had his conviction overturned three times, but remains in solitary confinement while the state appeals (prosecutors reversed those rulings the first two times). Wallace was permitted by a court to first re-open his case 16 years after his conviction, and the appeals continue to this day, with Wallace hoping for better success in federal rather than state court. Now age 72 and the subject of two documentaries on his story of injustice and solitary confinement, Wallace is suffering from advanced and terminal liver cancer (which, if detected earlier, might have been treatable), and is afraid of dying in prison. Wallace is now reportedly being held in isolation at a correctional center infirmary with very limited privileges. His lawyer says his treatment is so poor that he is “being killed through intentional neglect.”
The latest federal petition filed in 2009 is still pending, even after the court granted a motion for expedited review in July in light of Wallace’s illness. In the meantime, others could grant his release. In the prison system, a mechanism known as compassionate release allows inmates who are suffering with terminal illnesses to return home to their families during the final months of their life, but those convicted of particular crimes are not eligible, and laws vary by state. While a state prison representative declined to comment on Wallace’s release, a representative for his lawyer said he was not eligible under state law. Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) could also issue him a pardon or commute his sentence.
In the documentary on Herman’s confinement, Herman’s House, artist Jackie Sumell paints Wallace’s dream home as part of an exhibit on his confinement, and the story follows her attempt to fulfill his dream of building a real full-sized version of the dream home so he can one day return home to it.