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Friday, October 4, 2013

Decades in Solitary Confinement, Then Death in Freedom

Herman Wallace, one of the so-called “Angola 3″ prisoners known for their decades of incarceration and solitary confinement in Louisiana, has died just a few days after being released from jail, his legal team said on Friday. He was 71. The cause was liver cancer, the team said.

As we reported this week, Mr. Wallace was charged with a role in the stabbing death in 1972 of a prison guard. He later served 43 years in Louisiana prisons, more than 41 of those years in solitary confinement, his legal team said. He was released this week from the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, La., after a federal judge overturned his conviction this year, ordered a new trial and released him on bail.

Mr. Wallace died in his sleep at the home of supporters, where he had been receiving hospice care.

“He passed away in my home,” said Ashley Wennerstrom, a longtime friend and program director at Tulane’s School of Medicine, according to a report in The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans. “He was surrounded by friends and family and love in his last few days.”

In a statement, his legal team said:

For the past decade, it has been our honor to represent Herman Wallace. 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.’

Mr. Wallace was born on Oct. 13, 1941, in New Orleans. He was the fourth of eight children. His mother, Edna Clark Williams, worked in the Orleans Parish Prison until her death in 1996, the statement said.

In 1971, at age 30, Mr. Wallace was convicted of armed robbery and sent to Angola prison, which was known at that time as “the bloodiest prison in the South.” Armed inmates served as assistant guards. There was widespread physical and sexual violence, prostitution and sexual slavery in the prison, as well as deplorable sanitary conditions, said the statement, provided by Squire Sanders, whose lawyers made up part of the team.

Mr. Wallace established a Black Panthers group inside the prison and began to try to make reforms, along with his lifelong friend, Mr. Woodfox. Their primary goal was to reduce the incidence of rape.

In 1972, a guard was killed, and Mr. Wallace and Mr. Woodfox were convicted of the murder, based solely on the testimony of witnesses who were given incentives to testify, Mr. Wallace’s legal team said in their statement. The two men “have always maintained their absolute innocence of this crime and are corroborated in their accounts of their actions on that tragic day.”

Along with a third man, Robert King, also a Black Panthers member, Mr. Wallace and Mr. Woodfox are known as “The Angola 3.”

Mr. King was released in 2001 after about 29 years in solitary confinement.

Mr. Woodfox remains in solitary confinement and has a pending lawsuit regarding the daily strip and cavity searches that Louisiana has conducted on him, despite his “advanced age and decades of good behavior,” the legal team, which also represents Mr. Woodfox, said.

The two men were in solitary confinement for more than 40 years, the longest known solitary confinement in United States history, the team said.

“Despite being known to be at risk for liver cancer, Mr. Wallace was denied regular monitoring of his health while in solitary confinement and the cancer was not detected until June 2013, when it was already advanced,” a statement from his lawyers said. “After the cancer was detected and oral chemotherapy was recommended, it was over a month before Mr. Wallace received his medication.”

Mr. Wallace was re-indicted this week by the state, soon after his release, the Advocate reported.. The one-page indictment charges that Mr. Wallace “committed murder upon the person of Brent Miller” on April 17, 1972, it reported.

In its report in its Baton Rouge edition on Friday, the Advocate also quoted Hardy Miller, a younger brother of Mr. Miller, the guard, as welcoming the re-indictment. “I’m glad they did this,” he said, referring to the re-indictment.

“They were found guilty, and they are guilty,” he said, referring to Mr. Wallace and Mr. Woodfox. “They need to serve their time.”

Mr. Miller added: “Brent was just such a great guy, I always looked up to him. This should never have happened to him. It shouldn’t happen to anybody.”

In a statement on Friday, Steven Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA, which days earlier had welcome Mr. Wallace’s released, said it was a “sad day” for those who had worked for his freedom and he criticized the state’s re-indictment of Mr. Wallace.

“An African-American, he was convicted in 1974 of the murder of a prison guard, Brent Miller, by an all-white male jury. No DNA evidence linked him to the crime, not even the knife or the bloody prints found at the scene. The testimony of the main witness was later revealed to have been bought by the state in return for favors, including a pardon,” the Amnesty statement said.

It said that the state “compounded the flawed justice by re-indicting Herman for murder. Nothing can undo the authorities’ shocking treatment of this man, which led more than 200,000 people to act on his behalf. The state of Louisiana must now prevent further inhuman treatment by removing Wallace’s co-defendant Albert Woodfox from solitary confinement.”

Follow Christine Hauser on Twitter @christineNYT.