Terminally ill Louisiana prisoner denied release despite court order
Herman Wallace, a member of the so-called ‘Angola Three’ who has just days to live, at the centre of unseemly legal tussle
A gruesome legal battle over the fate of a dying man is being played out at the Hunt correctional center in St Gabriel, Louisiana, as state authorities refuse to release a former member of the Black Panther movement despite a federal court ordering they do so.
Herman Wallace, who was held for more than 40 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana jails, is still being confined inside the prison although Judge Brian Jackson ordered on Tuesday that he be immediately released. Wallace, 71, is suffering from lung cancer and is believed to have just days to live.
An ambulance is standing by outside the prison and lawyers for Wallace are also present. But the district attorney for East Baton Rouge has challenged the federal court order, and in the light of the challenge the Louisiana department of corrections is refusing to set the prisoner free.
The unseemly tussle over the fate of a dying man is wholly in keeping with the history of Wallace’s penal history up to this point. A member of the so-called “Angola Three,” he was convicted in 1974 for killing prison guard Brent Miller in Angola jail – but has always professed his innocence.
Wallace was then kept for 41 years in isolation, as has been his co-defendant and fellow Angola Three member Albert Woodfox.
Amnesty International USA has added its leverage to the push to have Wallace released, aware that he has probably only hours or days to live.
In a statement, its executive director Steven Hawkins said: “No ruling can erase the cruel, inhuman and degrading prison conditions he endured for more than 41 years – confined to a tiny cell for 23 hours a day. Judge Jackson’s decision to overturn Herman Wallace’s conviction underscores Amnesty’s long-held concerns about the original legal process that resulted in his imprisonment.
“The state must act immediately to release Wallace and remove Albert Woodfox from more than four decades of solitary confinement.”
Wallace’s legal team pleaded with the department of corrections to honour the judge’s order and release him immediately “so that he can spend his final days as a free man.”
Judge Jackson’s order, issued in a federal district court in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was based upon the unconstitutional nature of Wallace’s original 1972 grand jury that handed down the charges against him. The grand jury was convened as an all-male panel – in keeping with the contemporary spirit of Louisiana where no grand jury had ever included a woman up until that time.
Wallace’s virulent cancer was diagnosed in June after it had already reached a stage that was too advanced to treat. He blames his terminal condition on the fact that he was not given proper medical supervision during his prolonged solitary confinement.
In his most recent recorded comments, published for the first time by the Guardian, he told the film-maker Angad Bhalla: “I’m going through hell … While my mind is strong, my body fell victim.”
Watch a report on Wallace’s struggle, aired on Democracy Now on Monday, below.