ST. FRANCISVILLE, La. — A federal appeals court extended an order Friday blocking the release of Albert Woodfox, the last incarcerated member of a group of Louisiana prisoners known as the Angola Three.
A federal judge this week ordered Woodfox’s “immediate” and “unconditional” release and barred the state from trying him a third time in the 1972 death of a prison guard, but an appeal by the state will keep him behind bars for the immediate future.
A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals extended its stay of the judge’s ruling and ordered an expedited appeals process, with final legal briefs in the case due August 7.
Woodfox and two other prisoners who became Black Panther Party activists behind bars became known as the Angola Three because of their long stretches in isolation at the maximum-security Louisiana State Prison, a sprawling prison farm in Angola.
Woodfox was placed in solitary in 1972 after the death of a prison guard whose body was found in an empty prison dormitory. The others were Robert King, who was released in 2001 after his conviction in the death of a fellow inmate was overturned; and Herman Wallace, who died a free man in October 2013, just days after a judge granted him a new trial in the guard’s death.
Their treatment — being isolated for decades for their activism against brutal conditions — drew international attention from human rights groups and the United Nations.
State officials say evidence shows Woodfox is a killer, and they object to the “solitary confinement,” saying that despite the “extended lockdown” conditions Woodfox has lived under, he can see a television through the bars of his cell, talk to a small group of inmates on his tier, read books, have visitors and walk alone in a yard for an hour each day.
The defense had argued that Woodfox, at 68 years old and in ill health, would not be a danger to the community if allowed to be free pending a final appellate decision. But the three-judge panel, issuing a 10-page order a half hour before the stay was to expire, did not appear to agree.
“There is a substantial interest in staying the release of a person, twice convicted of murder, from being released from a life sentence without the possibility of parole,” Judge Jerry E. Smith wrote.
The Louisiana attorney general’s office maintains that Woodfox is too dangerous to set free.
“It has always been the State’s priority to ensure justice for the brutal slaying of Brent Miller and to hold accountable this murderer who has an extensive history of violent crimes,” said Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for the attorney general.
Outside the jail where Woodfox was moved in February pending a third trial, Miller’s brother and sister had been waiting with dozens of reporters and at least eight television trucks for word from the court.
“We are very happy. I thank the good Lord,” said Stan Miller, 62.
Miller’s widow, Teenie Rogers, has pressed for Woodfox’s release, saying she no longer believes he was responsible.
“We are deeply disappointed that after 40 years of incarceration under the harshest conditions possible, Mr. Woodfox will not be released today,” said Carine Williams, a Woodfox lawyer.
BRIAN SLODYSKO, Associated Press