The Sorry Injustice of the Angola Three

Release Herman Wallace—he is about to die of cancer in prison after 40 years in solitary confinement.

Two men watch television in the Angola State Penitentiary, where a majority of inmates are "lifers" (Prisoners for the rest of their life) on April 01, 2002 in Angola, Louisiana.
Two men watch television in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where Herman Wallace, one of the Angola Three, served most of his sentence.

Photo by Gilles Mingasson/Getty Images

Herman Wallace spent over four decades alone in a 6-by-9-foot prison cell. For 41 years, he has stretched, wretched, ached, medicated, grown, and deteriorated—all in the three paces he could take from his toilet to his closed cell door.

This week, while awaiting a federal judge’s decision on a petition he brought challenging the conviction that put him in solitary confinement, Wallace, who is 73, stopped an ineffective chemotherapy regime for a liver tumor. Because of the cancer diagnosis, Judge Brian Jackson agreed to an expedited ruling over a month ago, but hasn’t issued it yet. Wallace, meanwhile, has been told he has two months to live.

Wallace is one of the Angola Three, a trio of men who have become fixtures in prisoner exoneration lore both for the evidence of misconduct in their cases and for the political undertones of their decades-long solitary confinement. They’ve been held in Louisiana’s legendary Angola prison, which is named for the slave plantation that once occupied the grounds. Angola is also referred to as “the Farm,” and when you enter its gates after a long, lonely drive, you see inmates, mostly African-American, tending fields of cotton, wheat, and corn.

Wallace and Albert Woodfox entered Angola in 1971 for separate armed robbery convictions. That same year, the men co-founded an Angola chapter of the Black Panther Party to fight the systematic rape and violence that plagued the prison in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1972, following the murder of an Angola prison guard, Brent Miller, the men were charged, convicted, and put in solitary confinement for the next four decades. While the men admit to their armed robberies, they have consistently maintained their innocence in the Miller case.

Robert Hillary King, the third member of the Angola Three, was also active in the Black Panther Party. He did not arrive at Angola until after the Miller incident. Yet he served 29 years in solitary confinement for an inmate murder he did not commit before his release in 2001.

The Angola Three have won national and international attention. Amnesty International includes the men on its watch list of political prisoners, and this June, the organization called on Gov. Bobby Jindal to release Wallace on humanitarian grounds. In July, members of the House Committee on the Judiciary, including Rep. John Conyers (Michigan) and Rep. Cedric Richmond (Louisiana), sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, asking for a federal investigation of Louisiana’s punishment practices. They drew particular attention to the Angola Three and called the state’s treatment of Herman Wallace “unconscionable.”

The murder case is embarrassingly weak and rife with evidence of investigative and prosecutorial misconduct, including the bribing of witnesses and the suppression of exculpatory evidence. Even Brent Miller’s widow has come out in support of revisiting the men’s convictions. The case rests on four inmate witnesses, each of whom gave statements inconsistent with their testimony. Wallace’s lawyers learned decades later that the witnesses were promised all sorts of favors, including cigarettes, food, and even the possibility of a pardon in one case, in exchange for their testimony. One of the Angola wardens at the time has been recorded saying of the state’s primary witness, Hezekiah Brown: “you could put words in his mouth.” A bloody fingerprint and a number of other prints found at the scene matched none of the defendants, yet the prison didn’t try to find a match among the rest of the prison population.

In 2009 federal Magistrate Judge Docia Dalby wrote that the extreme length of Wallace’s and Woodfox’s isolation was “so far beyond the pale that this Court has not found anything even remotely comparable in the annals of American jurisprudence.” So why has it continued?

In a 2008 deposition, Angola Warden Burl Cain said “Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace is (sic) locked in time with that Black Panther revolutionary actions they were doing way back when, and that they’re still hooked up to that.” Asked to assume Woodfox was innocent of the Miller murder, Cain still insisted he should remain isolated. Otherwise “I would have me all kinds of problems, more than I could stand, and I would have the blacks chasing after them. I would have chaos and conflict, and I believe that.” Courts and legislators usually defer to prison officials like Cain—a central reason that 80,000 prisoners are currently in solitary confinement in American jails and prisons.

If Judge Jackson overturns Wallace’s murder conviction, he could be released on bail. Rep. Cedric Richmond wrote a letter Thursday encouraging Jackson to take this step. But Louisiana Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell has indicated he will do what it takes to keep Wallace locked up. Caldwell has also denied that Wallace was held in solitary. “Let me be clear,” he concluded in a statement last spring, “Woodfox and Wallace are GUILTY and have NEVER been held in solitary confinement.” In 2008, Judge James Brady overturned Woodfox’s conviction and ordered release on bail, at which point Caldwell requested an emergency appeal.* The famously conservative Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed Brady before Woodfox’s release could even be processed.

Jindal could also let Wallace out of prison, with the consent of a pardon board, by granting him clemency. But the governor won’t discuss the matter, either with Wallace’s supporters or with the press.

After his cancer diagnosis in June, Wallace was moved out of solitary so that he could receive treatment in the prison infirmary without being shackled during transport. He had already lost 45 pounds over a span of six months at that point. He is still out of solitary, living in a prison hospital room, but after three months of chemotherapy, he is quite literally depleted.

Now, nearing the end of his physical battles, Wallace is looking ahead. For years, he has been collaborating with artist Jackie Sumell to design a dream house—a conceptual escape from his solitary cell that is also a project to build a real house that will serve as a youth center in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward. In July, a documentary about the project, Herman’s House, debuted on public television. Wallace is using his last days to focus on fundraising for it. He gave Sumell a bit of encouragement on a recent visit: “Kiddo, you gotta get on your game. You’re going to be the face of this now.”

Correction, Sept. 14, 2013: This piece incorrectly identified the judge who overturned Herman Wallace’s conviction as Judge Brian Jackson. The judge was James Brady. (Return to corrected sentence.) Also, due to a production error, the caption for the accompanying photo originally said Herman Wallace is still being held in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. He was moved from the prison in 2008.