Louisiana – After spending over 40 years in a Louisiana prison and having his claims of a wrongful murder conviction go unanswered, Herman Wallace is released so he can die among friends and family. While Wallace may finally rest in peace among the ones he loves and no longer surrounded by the same four walls he endured in solitary, it was a bitter sweet ending to a long fight for justice.
Wallace, who has spent decades in solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison, is terminally ill with liver cancer. He was released from Elayne Hunt Correctional Center after a judge vacated his murder conviction and sentence, according to one of his attorneys. Meanwhile, state officials were threatened with contempt if they did not release Wallace immediately.
The 71-year-old Wallace is one of the "Angola 3," which is a group of three inmates who tried to draw attention to the injustices that allegedly took place at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola during the late 1960s and 1970s.
According to one of his attorneys, Wallace's family wanted him to be moved to hospice care in New Orleans.
"He has claimed there was an unfair trial for 41 years and finally we have that ruling," said attorney Nick Trenticosta. "For him to pass on from this world with friends and family at his side is important."
Wallace's release came just hours after U.S. District Chief Judge Brian A. Jackson in Baton Rouge pointed out that women were systematically excluded from the grand jury that had indicted Wallace in the 1972 killing of a guard at Louisiana State Penitentiary.
After Jackson's ruling, District Attorney Hillar Moore's office filed an appeal with the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals asking that Wallace not be immediately released. Jackson responded by demanding that Wallace be freed immediately, saying that Wallace was not a flight risk, nor a public danger. Jackson threatened them with contempt of judgment.
Wallace's legal team praised the long-awaited release of their client. "Tonight, Herman Wallace has left the walls of Louisiana prisons and will be able to receive the medical care that his advanced liver cancer requires," they said in a statement. "It took the order of a federal judge to address the clear constitutional violations present in Mr. Wallace's 1974 trial and grant him relief. The state of Louisiana has had many opportunities to address this injustice and has repeatedly and utterly failed to do so."
Louisiana State Penitentiary is known as Angola, named after the land that it rests upon, which was once a plantation named after the home country of many of the slaves who worked the land. The land was ultimately purchased by the prison system. The prison earned a reputation for being the "bloodiest prison in the South" for the number of inmate assaults. While Angola is recognized for the abuses that went on there, the abuses are considered a thing of the past.
Earlier this year, two death row inmates at Angola testified in court about being subjected to "indescribable heat." Their testimony was a part of a lawsuit against the prison alleging that inmates with pre-existing medical conditions were put at risk, reported the New Orleans Times Picayune.
Using the "Angola 3" as reference, several U.S. congressmen filed a complaint alleging that inmates are being kept in solitary confinement for unreasonable lengths of time. For example, Wallace was in solitary confinement at Angola until 2009, which is when he was moved to Hunt Correctional Center. Wallace was in solitary confinement until his diagnosis.
According to Trenticosta, Wallace's attorney, Wallace and another inmate tried to stop the guard brutality as much as the inmate brutality.
Albert Woodfox and Wallace were convicted of the 1972 killing of an Angola guard. Albert Woodfox and Wallace, along with a third inmate, Robert King, also known as Robert K. Wilkerson, protested prison conditions and together, the trio was known as the "Angola 3." Both Woodfox and Wallace claimed that they were targeted because of their activism as Black Panthers.
In 1972, Wallace was serving time for armed robbery and at the time of the guard's death, he and Woodfox were threatening the status quo, according to Trenticosta.
King was transferred to Angola just weeks after the guard's slaying; however, he was investigated as a possible conspirator and placed into solitary confinement like Wallace and Woodfox, according to the documentary, Pin the Land of the Free." King was never convicted in connection to the guard's death.
Wallace has claimed his innocence in the guard's death in appeals. His lawyers said that Wallace fought his unconstitutional conviction for decades and is supported by four alibi witnesses who place him in another part of the prison when the murder occurred.
According to his lawyers, after losing between 40 and 50 pounds, he was found to have terminal liver cancer. Chemotherapy treatment was ineffective and subsequently was suspended. Trenticosta said that the cancer should have been treated much earlier.
According to Amnesty International USA, Wallace and Woodfox, who remains in prison appeals pending in his case, "endured restrictive conditions, including periods of 23-hour cell confinement."
Amnesty said that tragically, this step toward justice comes when Herman is dying from cancer with only days or hours left to live. They said that no ruling could erase the cruel, inhuman and degrading prison conditions he endured for over 41 years.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana asked authorities not to appeal the ruling that freed Wallace.
Trenticosta said, "There is no anger with Mr. Wallace. He is the strongest person I have had the great opportunity to represent. He is about positive thinking."
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