CREDIT: The House That Herman Built
A federal judge ordered the release Tuesday of a dying inmate who spent more than 40 years in solitary confinement for a racially charged murder conviction that has continued to garner outrage in the decades since.
Herman Wallace was one of the famous “Angola 3” — three politically active Black Panthers 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. 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). Appeals in Wallace’s case have continued since he first was permitted to re-open his case in 1990. As Andrew Cohen wrote recently in the Atlantic, “Layer upon layer of procedural protections has been built around it so that today, as Wallace nears death, it is easy to see the vast gulf that exists here between law and justice.”
He has also served one of the longest known sentences in a solitary concrete cell, a punishment that has been called torture, cruel and inhuman, and a “living death.” With the legal issues still in limbo, Louisiana officials have not heeded calls to grant Wallace compassionate release, now that he is suffering from fatal liver cancer.
On Tuesday, a federal judge ordered his immediate release on the basis that women were excluded from the grand jury that indicted Wallace more than 40 years ago. Wallace had initially raised this argument during his trial and presented uncontested evidence that no woman had ever served on a jury in West Feliciana Parish, but the judge denied the motion, stating he had not see “a shred of evidence of discrimination.”
Because Judge Brian Jackson for the Middle District of Louisiana agreed with this argument, he did not reach Wallace’s other claims that the state knowingly used false testimony and withheld exculpatory evidence at trial, his trial lawyer had a conflict of interest, and the jury was given improper instructions. “Our Constitution requires this result even where, as here, it means overturning Mr. Wallace’s conviction more than forty years ago,” wrote Jackson, an Obama appointee.
Wallace likely has days or weeks left to live. But lawyers for the state nonetheless told the Times-Picayune they will appeal the ruling, and that they will ask the court to delay Wallace’s release while the appeal is pending.