CREDIT: Photo courtesy of Carine Williams/The Advocate
The terminally ill man released just days ago from prison, after 42 years in solitary confinement for a racially charged Louisiana murder case, was re-indicted Thursday by a county prosecutor. A federal judge overturned Herman Wallace’s conviction for murder after a trial based 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.
UPDATE: Later Thursday night, Wallace died in his sleep, according to news reports. District Attorney Sam D’Aquilla, who filed the charges, told ThinkProgess Friday morning, “We indicted him yesterday and filed it. We were gonna have a warrant issued to get him picked up but somebody told me he went ahead and died.”
After Tuesday’s ruling, Louisiana prosecutors said they would appeal the case and moved to keep Wallace in custody pending appeal, but Jackson ordered that he be released immediately and said the warden would be held in contempt if he refused to release him. Jackson was taken to a hospice center Tuesday night, according to the Advocate.
But on Thursday, D’Aquilla said he filed a new indictment against the 71-year-old man. “I think he’s a murderer,” he told ThinkProgress. “A federal judge overturned the conviction because of a flaw in the indictment, not a flaw in the conviction.”
In his ruling Tuesday overturning Wallace’s conviction, U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson never reached 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, because he found the original indictment was based on an unconstitutional grand jury that excluded women. “Our Constitution requires this result even where, as here, it means overturning Mr. Wallace’s conviction more than forty years ago,” Jackson wrote.
When asked whether D’Aquilla considered the value of expending resources on a case that likely would never see Wallace’s return to jail, D’Aquilla said he had.
“I actually determined that he was sentenced to life and he didn’t fulfill his sentence,” he said. “It’s not fair to have him not in jail. His medical condition or something like that didn’t nullify the actions that he did.”
He added, “I’m a prosecutor. This is what we do.”
Wallace was one of three politically active Black Panther defendants known as the “Angola 3,” who were convicted in the murder of a beloved white prison guard. 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).
As Wallace’s condition worsened without any predictable progress in the appeals that had wended their way through courts since 1990, many called for Wallace’s compassionate release. As part of a recent initiative to address the United States epidemic of mass incarceration, U.S. Attorney General announced an expansion of the federal compassionate release program for critically ill inmates who do not pose a threat to society. Louisiana, however, refused to grant compassionate release to Wallace.
By the time of his release, Wallace could no longer speak. But fellow defendant Robert King, whose conviction was also overturned, said he had no doubt Wallace understood what was happening. “What Herman couldn’t express I think he showed in his eyes,” King told the Advocate.
Herman Wallace’s legal team released the following statement on Wallace’s passing:
Herman endured what very few of us can imagine, and he did it with grace, dignity, and empathy to the end. He remained committed to standing up for himself and his fellow prisoners, including Albert Woodfox who is still kept in harsh solitary confinement conditions in a Louisiana prison. Despite the cruelty Herman was shown, he had no hatred in his heart.
Although his freedom was much too brief, it meant the world to Herman to spend these last three days surrounded by the love of his family and friends. One of the final things that Herman said to us was, “I am free. I am free.”