Herman Wallace in 2008. Credit: The Innocence Project/The Advocate.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. – Dylan Thomas
You’d think rage would occupy the mind of Herman Wallace. He was held in solitary confinement for 41 years for a crime he didn’t commit. 41 years. Not just for an innocent error or a case of mistaken identity; 41 years in solitary confinement because the criminal justice system fucked him. Deliberately.
Herman Wallace didn’t rage at that travesty, at least not in a way many of us would consider rage. He was a model of measured restraint in irrepressibly fighting the injustice he faced before he passed away (you can here his voice talking about his experience here). But, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t rage. We should.
Allow me to take you on a journey. A journey about peeling back one of dark truths of our modern, representative democracy that we don’t like to talk about.
It’s a journey written especially for my white friends and readers, kicking open the door to some uncomfortable realities many of our lives have otherwise allowed us to avoid.
It’s also a tale written for my Republican and conservative friends, to call into question root beliefs around our criminal justice system, to allow for a long-overdue assessment of what criminal justice reform really means.
But, regardless of one’s race or political beliefs, this is a tale of a failure in our society’s criminal justice system we have allowed to linger for far, far too long.
The seed that could spawn eventual change in our country on this topic may well be the horrific case of Philando Castille. The black man shot and killed by a Minnesota cop during a traffic stop while complying with the officer and conducting himself entirely as he should have as a passenger legally carrying a firearm. Castille’s killer was acquitted in the clearest possible case where an officer should have been convicted of a crime for an unjust shooting. That incident along with others of police misconduct captured on cell phone video in recent months caused me and other traditionally conservative people to re-think some of our assumptions about the justice our country does or does not provide.
Living in New Orleans has since taken the seed of dismay for me and blossomed into a tree of righteous anger.
I’ll tell you some reasons why.
A man was recently released from prison in Louisiana after 46 years after being wrongly convicted for rape.
Jones was found guilty in the Oct. 2, 1971, rape of a young Baton Rouge General Medical Center nurse who was abducted from the hospital parking lot. Another young woman was kidnapped Oct. 29, 1971, from the parking lot of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical and raped. Both were abducted at gunpoint.
[Judge] Anderson ruled the state was obligated to turn over information about the second rape to Jones’ trial attorneys but failed to do so. He said “there is a reasonable probability that, had the information been disclosed to competent counsel, the result of the proceeding would have been different.”
The judge added that the “strong similarities” between the two rapes are “almost too numerous to list.” He also stated that the nurse’s physical description of her attacker is “an almost identical match” to Arnold Ray O’Conner, who was convicted of armed robbery in a September 1973 home-invasion rape near Baton Rouge General.
Wilbert Jones spent 46 years of his life behind bars because of what can only politely be called the benign neglect of prosecutors in the case. A less charitable version is prosecutors deliberately chose to withhold exculpatory evidence so convincing a judge overturned the verdict once brought to his attention decades later. Neither option is acceptable given the foundational principle of our country’s justice system that we are innocent until proven guilty.
Stories like this are sadly not unheard of in today’s America, including as DNA testing reveals some old verdicts as errors of justice. In that vein, one might argue: “gee, these problems sure seem like they’re rooted in the past. We’ve evolved as a society a lot in the last several decades, including with technology. We’re past that now, right?”
The New Orleans prosecutor’s office is facing a federal lawsuit today because of the use of “fake subpoenas” to compel testimony from innocent witnesses:
Topped with the word “subpoena” and the seal of the district attorney in New Orleans, the documents carried an air of authority. They instructed people to appear before prosecutors “to testify to the truth,” and they warned that “failure to obey” the missive could lead to a fine and imprisonment.
But the personalized documents were never endorsed by any court. Instead, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit brought on Tuesday in New Orleans, the papers that were disguised as subpoenas were central to a sustained and fraudulent effort by local prosecutors to coerce witnesses.
The lawsuit, filed by seven plaintiffs, accused local prosecutors of menacing prospective witnesses with what were supposedly subpoenas. Sometimes, the lawsuit said, officials asked judges that people be jailed as material witnesses after they balked at the demands for private meetings with prosecutors.
The approach, the lawsuit said, intended “to create a culture of fear and intimidation that chills crime victims and witnesses from asserting their constitutional rights.” It added, “As a result of these policies, crime victims and witnesses in Orleans Parish know that if they exercise their right not to speak with an investigating prosecutor, they will face harassment, threats, arrest and jail.”
Innocent, prospective witnesses were then sent to jail for failing to comply with these “subpoenas,” including the victim of domestic violence jailed for five days before her attacker eventually avoided jail time after his ultimate conviction. That’s not justice. Far, far from it.
To make matters worse, the prosecutor’s office doesn’t appear to be serious about responding to the lawsuit, let alone having a modern filing system for records:
During the hearing, Love and other judges questioned Vincent about why the [fake subpoena] records were not more easily accessible.
“There’s no database of all your pleadings?” Love asked Vincent.
“No ma’am,” Vincent said. Moreover, it costs the DA’s office more than $8 to access a closed file from where it’s kept in storage, he said. And any files that are scanned he said, are not word searchable.
While this rot exists today, it is the tale of Herman Wallace that speaks to me. Herman’s case is famous in some social activist circles. He was one of the Angola 3, held in solitary confinement for 41 years…for a crime he didn’t commit.
Herman’s was finally set free, dying three days after his release, earning a story in the New York Times.
If the case of Philando Castile should gnaw at the heart of every American who believes in freedom, the case of Herman Wallace should haunt our dreams, raising serous questions about how far we have still to go to achieve they system of government and law our Constitution describes.
The Atlantic detailed some of the appalling facts of the errant conviction of Herman Wallace for the murder of a prison guard at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola:
- Blood & fingerprints at the scene didn’t match the defendants
- Each of the eyewitnesses claimed to be sole eye witness and none of their tales was consistent with the other
- One “witness” later testified to being beaten during interrogation for the case
- One “witness” was legally blind
- One “witness” was schizophrenic
- One was charged with another murder, using his testimony in the Wallace case to garner favor for leniency on that charge
- Other inmates testified Wallace was not present at the murder
- All 4 defendants, including Wallace, had the same counsel. One co-defendant flipped to the prosecution’s side after striking a deal with the warden of the prison during trial. Defense counsel was given a mere 30 minutes to prepare to cross-examine his former client
- Exculpatory testimony and evidence was withheld from the defense
- Wallace’s counsel failed to appeal the verdict after conviction
After that farce of a trial, triggered by an unconstitutional indictment that led to Wallace’s eventual release decades later, he and Albert Woodfox lived in solitary confinement…in perpetuity. The third member of the Angola 3, Robert King, eventually joined them in solitary for the same crime, even though he wasn’t even in Angola when the murder took place.
The uniting factor between Wallace, Woodfox, and King?
They were part of the Black Panthers, having joined the organization while incarcerated as part of protesting truly horrific and inhumane prison conditions.
Horrific and inhumane?
Yes, and that’s being s polite.
Angola was a Third World shit hole meets Jim Crow; known infamously as the “bloodiest prison in America” for its history of prisoner violence and rape:
The prison’s roots go back to 1880, when a former Confederate major purchased a plantation called Angola, so named for the country where the region’s slaves came from. He began storing prisoners in the former slave quarters. After stories of brutality leaked from its walls, the state took control of the prison. Unfortunately, conditions didn’t improve.
In 1943, a former prisoner penned in an exposing series of articles about various abuses at Angola, including this one about a warden who’d roam with a three-foot leather strip to lash the inmates. “[He] raised it over his head, with both hands, and brought it down with a sharp pop like a pistol shot on the naked man’s back. One … two … three … twenty; the count goes beyond thirty … the man moans, pleads for mercy, calls on God. The captain tells him: ‘You bettah call on someone closer to you—someone who kin help you!’”
Conditions got so bad in the 1950s that 31 inmates sliced their Achilles tendons to bring attention to their poor treatment. In the following decades, sexual slavery was common place and gun-welding prisoners patrolled as guards called “khaki-backs.” In the early ‘70s, an average of 12 prisoners were stabbed to death each year.
Set aside that heinous, nauseous level of “you might be ‘free’ but we’re still going to keep you down, boy” racism that allows such a plantation-as-prison construct, and consider 31 inmates reached the point they believed slicing their own Achilles tendons was better than the status quo!
I’d join the Black Panthers too in their shoes.
Here’s the key point though, because the Black Panthers had their own controversial history: regardless of any concern people may have about the Black Panthers, part of the point of the United States is we’re not supposed to imprison people for political beliefs. We fought a war against that kind of tyranny for God’s sake.
Except we didn’t root all that tyranny out of our flawed humanity. The wages of our nation’s original sin of slavery are not yet behind us.
Wallace’s attorney argued clearly in that NY Times obituary piece:
George Kendall, who was a lawyer for Mr. Wallace and who confirmed the death, said in an interview that his client’s original conviction was “a travesty” based on shoddy evidence, and that the men had been kept in solitary confinement because they had been members of the Black Panthers, the black nationalist group. Officials worried “that they would organize the prison,” he said.
What else explains the lengths at which prison officials went to beat, badger, and bribe other convicts into testifying against Wallace and Woodfox? What else explains holding men in solitary confinement for 41 years?
Wallace said as much:
[Angola] warden Burl Cain offered to release Woodfox and Wallace back into the general population if they renounced their political views and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.
What. The. Fuck?
I see we leaped to limiting both political and religious freedom as tools of the state here.
Importantly, Cain confirmed the motivation:
In a 2008 deposition, attorneys for Woodfox asked Cain, “Let’s just for the sake of argument assume, if you can, that he is not guilty of the murder of [Angola prison guard] Brent Miller.” Cain responded, “Okay, I would still keep him in CCR [solitary confinement]…I still know that he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organize the young new inmates. I would have me all kind of problems, more than I could stand, and I would have the blacks chasing after them.”
It’s tough to speculate on what James Madison and Alexander Hamilton would think of a system holding people in solitary confinement as political prisoners in the 21st century, but I’d wager they wouldn’t be amused. Hamilton in particular would likely be enraged.
Yet, that’s what the Angola 3 were: political prisoners.
The scurrilous Cain was warden of Angola from 1995 to 2015, resigning after a series of shady deals and shenanigans with use of inmate labor. Cain’s behavior in our modern era belies the excuse we might comfort ourselves with that deplorable, racist behavior is a vestige of the past and we can easily presume it’s behind us.
On that score, let’s return to the story of Herman Wallace. He was belatedly diagnosed with Stage 4 liver cancer while incarcerated; the disease by then being its own death sentence. Yet, Louisiana rejected requests for compassionate release. As if the bed-ridden, dying Wallace was somehow a danger to society at that point.
Regardless, a federal judge ultimately over-turned Wallace’s indictment for murder and ordered him released. Deplorably, Louisiana officials remained obstinate:
For a while Tuesday evening, it looked as though Wallace wouldn’t be released. First, supporters said Elayn Hunt Warden Howard Prince left to eat dinner, claiming he couldn’t allow Wallace’s release because he’d already left the grounds. But a federal judge ordered him back and after another hour of wrangling, Wallace emerged from the gates of the prison in the back of an ambulance.
Indeed, the federal judge had to threaten the state prison system with contempt and order Wallace released that evening before he was ultimately freed and transported via ambulance to his brief life after prison.
Everything about the conduct of multiple officials in disparate parts of the criminal justice system in the handling of the case of Herman Wallace imply, often not very subtly, that they were more interested in sticking it to a black man with uncomfortable political beliefs than any sort of real justice.
As icing on that cruel, bitter cake, they re-indicted Wallace on his death bed:
Thursday afternoon, less than 24 hours after Wallace had been transported into hospice care at Wennerstrom’s home, a newly-convened grand jury in West Feliciana re-indicted Wallace on the murder charge.
West Feliciana District Attorney Samuel D’Aquilla confirmed the reindictment Friday morning, saying the grand jury featured six women and at least one black member, an older man roughly Wallace’s age.
D’Aquilla said no court date would have been set until December, long after friends and family expected Wallace to live. But D’Aquilla denied the move was political, saying only “we just had concerns about compassion issues.”
D’Aquilla maintained his stance that Wallace was guilty of Miller’s murder, however, saying the federal judge only overturned the grand jury indictment and not his 1974 conviction.
I think someone misspelled “vindictive assholes.” Who spends public resources re-indicting someone on their death bed for an alleged crime 40 years ago after a federal judge orders said person’s release?
As you ponder what might motivate such behavior, consider what Wallace’s fellow member of the Angola 3, Albert Woodfox experienced: daily strip searches and body cavity inspections. Treatment so ludicrous it was the source of litigation:
Jerry Goodwin, the warden at David Wade Correctional Center, where Woodfox is imprisoned, testified to U.S. District Court Judge James J. Brady that it is the prison’s policy to perform “visual body cavity searches” every time a maximum security inmate enters or leaves his tier.
Sheridan England, a member of Woodfox’s legal team, asked Goodwin why his client should undergo the searches, since he remains shackled and under constant watch by at least two guards during his time off the tier.
Woodfox’s was eventually freed after copping a deal with prosecutors last year to cease their ongoing appeals after the third time federal courts overturned his conviction. Woodfox is free today and recently the subject of a National Geographic special with Morgan Freeman.
Meanwhile, lest we think the dated mistreatment of now old and dead men are behind us, the insanity at Angola continues today. A new death row cell block was opened with completely inadequate cooling for the oppressive, muggy heat of Louisiana’s summers, creating indoor heat indexes so brtual and dangerous as to warrant litigation of over cruel and unusual punishment.
That was in 2013. Just last year the federal judge overseeing the case expressed exasperation with the failure of Louisiana officials to address the problem, including spending more on legal fees fighting the case than the estimated cost of adding sufficient cooling solutions to the cell block in question.
And Angola is not alone in Louisiana:
About 15 months after its launch, a federal investigation into conditions at the St. Tammany Parish jail found that the complex did not provide adequate mental health care or suicide prevention measures to its prisoners
- In 2014, a man on death row was released after the vacating of a murder conviction of which he was innocent. He spent 30 years in prison for the erroneous conviction
- And just this year, a man was released after spending nearly eight years in jail for a non-violent criminal charge that never went to trial:
When Kevin Smith was jailed on a drug charge in New Orleans in 2010, Blockbuster was still renting DVDs and President Barack Obama was still trying to pass his signature health care bill.
Smith’s case never went to a jury. On Monday, 2,832 days after he was locked up, Criminal District Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier ordered Smith’s release, bowing to an appeals court ruling that prosecutors had violated his right to a speedy trial.
Eight years in prison awaiting trial. In today’s America.
Here’s a fact that should trouble the hell out of every American who believes in a fair justice system. A fact I haven’t spent much time on in the overall scheme of this post thus far: every example I’ve cited involves a black man.
Black men, denied justice in the Deep South…and across our country.
Black men convicted of rape they didn’t commit.
Black men convicted of murder they didn’t commit.
Black men shot to death during a traffic stop while complying with a police officer’s commands.
Black men held in solitary confinement for decades.
Black men punished in prison for decades simply for their political beliefs.
To paraphrase the stunning closing argument by “Jake Brigance” (played by Matthew McConaughey) in a Time to Kill:
Can you picture those black men?
Can you picture them spending 23 hours a day in a 6×9 cell for decades for crimes they didn’t commit?
Can you picture them bleeding to death in the passenger seat of a car on the side of the road?
Can you picture it?
Now imagine they’re white.
What would you do then?