The case of the Angola 3 raises disturbing questions about race, justice and the fate of two imprisoned activists.
Anita Roddick | April 2007 issue
I am certainly not the only one on the airplane headed to New Orleans with a knot in my stomach, wondering what I might find.
It’s a little over a year after Hurricane Katrina, and the city is in shambles, with fishing trawlers still stranded on the shoulders of highways, mattresses stuck in trees, and people’s lives in tatters. But my anxieties are decidedly different from those of my fellow passengers. I am on my way to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, America’s largest prison and one of its most notorious. “Angola” is a reference to the region in Africa where many of the slaves who worked on cotton and sugar-cane plantations here were captured.
For the past five years, I have been following the case of the “Angola 3.” All three African-American men were convicted of murder inside the Angola prison in the early 1970s, where they were all serving unrelated armed robbery sentences. All three have continually professed innocence. One, Robert King Wilkerson, finally proved his innocence and was released in 2001. The other two – Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace – remain in solitary confinement.
Woodfox and Wallace were convicted in the 1972 murder of a white prison guard inside the black prison dormitory. In separate trials, they were convicted by all-white juries, despite the fact that none of the physical evidence linked them to the crime. Observers note that all of the witnesses testifying against them were inmate informers who were compensated handsomely for their testimony – with promises of pardons, shortened sentences, and in one case, a pack of cigarettes a week for the rest of the inmate’s life sentence.
I have visited with all three men repeatedly over the years, making the trek on Louisiana’s back roads to this massive 18,000-acre former slave plantation where to this day mostly black men work the fields under the watchful eyes of armed white guards on horseback.
Some things never change. What amazes me is that this lack of change does not cause people to march in the streets demanding justice, equity and, for God’s sake, basic evidence that things have progressed in this swampy backwater since the days of slavery.
In the airplane flying over Texas en route to New Orleans, I am imagining this trip will offer the first real glimmer of hope in the cases of Woodfox and Wallace, and give me faith that I will see these men exonerated before they die. The Mississippi River appears below and we descend through a typical August thunderstorm into the physically and morally broken state of Louisiana.
It is 100 degrees with 96-percent humidity when I arrive in New Orleans to meet Scott Fleming, the attorney for Woodfox and Wallace. We are headed to Angola for a momentous occasion: Herman Wallace has his first hearing in three decades. A small band of activists and investigators have turned up evidence that may finally absolve him. After years of arduous work filing legal papers and waiting for the painfully slow judicial process to play out (made slower by the state of Louisiana’s energetic efforts to discredit Wallace’s legal team), we should finally see evidence presented showing that the state and the prison administration concealed proof that would have exonerated Wallace and Woodfox.
In baggage claim, I spot Fleming, who looks disappointed. While I was flying from my daughter’s home in California to New Orleans, he tells me, the judge had postponed the hearing. My heart sank. I had seen the prison administration’s pettiness before – they resent the media attention I have drawn to this case and have punished Woodfox and Wallace for it many times. They have gone so far as to throw me out of the prison when I was visiting Wallace and Woodfox, and to ban my book A Revolution in Kindness from being sent to inmates (I was told it was “a threat to security”). So this time I naturally shifted into suspicion: Were prison and state officials worried that the evidence presented at this hearing might expose them for the liars they are? Or were they flexing their power to show who was in charge? But Fleming assured me it really was just a bureaucratic matter.
I sit down with Fleming and other Angola 3 supporters to hear about evidence they turned up in their investigations of the case. It turns out there were bloody fingerprints at the murder scene, yet the prison administration only had them tested against the four men initially charged with the murder – and they did not match. More than 5,000 inmates were in the prison at that time, every one with fingerprints on file. The fact that the state refused to check the bloody fingerprints against every inmate in the prison proves to me they were never interested in discovering the truth. And the state has conveniently lost the fingerprints in question. So it is no longer possible to do this basic check. It makes my blood boil.
My jaw hit the floor when I heard that the murdered prison guard had a young wife, only 17 at the time, who sued the prison for “wrongful death.” In her suit, she named the indicted inmates in the case, arguing that the state had been negligent in allowing the situation that led to her husband’s murder to develop. Her case was dismissed after the state said that there was no evidence that the men charged with the crime had committed it.
I book an early flight home, say farewell to Fleming and the rest of the legal team and head back to England, even more outraged than before. When the hearing is rescheduled, I will fly back to Louisiana, so I can be there when Wallace gets his day in court. I will never accept the horrifying fate of the Angola 3, or understand how others who know the truth live with themselves after keeping two men in solitary confinement for a crime even state officials know they didn’t commit.
Editors’ Note: On September 19, 2006, the Louisiana 19th Judicial Court in Baton Rouge recommended that Herman Wallace’s 1974 murder conviction be overturned because prosecutors withheld key information that a witness testifying against Wallace had been promised a pardon from a life sentence, among other favours. This opinion must still be adopted by a judge, and is likely to be appealed by state officials – a protracted legal process that could last up to two years. Nonetheless, Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and their friends and families were overjoyed at the news.
http://www.angola3.org. Anita Roddick is the co-founder of the Body Shop, an author and environmental and social activist. More information: http://www.anitaroddick.com