Last 'Angola Three' prisoner fails to sway judge at hearing

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Posted: Sep 21, 2015 6:12 PM
Last 'Angola Three' prisoner fails to sway judge at hearing

ST. FRANCISVILLE, La. (AP) — A judge on Monday rejected defense efforts to exclude key witness testimony against the last remaining Angola Three member still behind bars and to throw out his indictment entirely in the 1972 killing of a prison guard.

Judge William Carmichael also ruled that the trial against Albert Woodfox could go forward in West Feliciana parish, rejecting defense claims that he could not get a fair trial in a place where Louisiana's Angola prison is also located.

Woodfox is the last member of a group often referred to as the "Angola Three," for their extended stays in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola as well as other prisons. The decades-long case has gained international attention and highlighted the use of solitary confinement in American prisons.

Woodfox has consistently maintained his innocence in the death of prison guard Brent Miller. He is being held at the West Feliciana Parish Detention Center awaiting his third trial.

State officials dispute the solitary confinement description. They say that while in prison, Woodfox was able to talk to other inmates, have visitors, watch television through the bars of his cell and leave the cell daily for an hour.

Prosecutors pushed for a new trial in Miller's death earlier this year after two previous convictions were overturned. The case was thrown into turmoil in June when U.S. District Judge James Brady in Baton Rouge ordered Woodfox's "immediate" release and took the extraordinary step of barring a third trial for Woodfox in Miller's death.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has yet to rule on whether Woodfox can be tried a third time, but in the meantime, the state is pushing forward and Woodfox remains behind bars.

The judge did not set a trial date, but ruled on several defense and prosecution motions.

Carmichael rejected efforts by Woodfox to throw out the indictment entirely. His lawyers had argued that Woodfox could not get a fair trial because so much time has passed since the crime and key witnesses have died.

Woodfox appeared during the hearing wearing a black and white striped jail uniform, his hands and feet shackled. He wore glasses and much of the 68-year-old's hair, mustache and beard were tinged with gray. When he got up to leave, he smiled and waved to his brothers and supporters in the courtroom before shuffling out.

Tory Pegram, an activist supporting Woodfox, called the developments "disappointing" although she said she still believes Woodfox will be proven innocent. Woodfox's three brothers also attended the hearing.

"I think it was a mockery of justice," said Michael Mable. He said he visits Woodfox monthly.

Louisiana authorities say they're trying to hold Woodfox accountable.

"This inmate seeks to further delay justice by attempting to put up procedural hurdles that would prevent the state from holding him fully accountable for his crime," said Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for the attorney general.

Woodfox was serving time for armed robbery and assault when he was convicted of Miller's murder. Inmates identified him as the one who grabbed the guard from behind while others stabbed him with a lawnmower blade and a hand-sharpened prison knife.

But the star witness, a serial rapist who left death row and was pardoned by the Louisiana governor after his testimony, died before the second trial. His testimony can still be read to jurors in the upcoming trial, the judge ruled Monday. Woodfox's lawyers had wanted it kept out because jurors would not be able to see him being confronted about evidence they say suggests his testimony came in return for preferential treatment.

The judge did rule that any verdict must be unanimous — something Woodfox's team wanted — and that Woodfox's legal team must have access to prison fingerprint cards from 1972, which they could then compare to bloody fingerprints found at the crime scene.

The judge also ordered the state to look for any and all evidence that may contain DNA so that the defense can test it.