Due to endless litigation, conflicting legal technicalities, or inadequate transitional facilities, prisoners who are innocent may find themselves behind bars indefinitely. (Photo: Peter MacDiarmid / Getty)
Former Black Panther Albert Woodfox, convicted of murdering a prison guard with two other inmates, has spent the last 35 years in prison, most of it in solitary confinement. Last month, Woodfox’s conviction was overturned by a federal judge. However, despite being cleared of charges, Woodfox remains incarcerated, as the Louisiana attorney general’s office persists in challenging the judge’s decision.
After repeated reexaminations of his case and an intervention by US House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, who called Woodfox’s continued incarceration a “tragic miscarriage of justice,” evidence against Woodfox is practically nonexistent. Nevertheless, he remains embroiled in litigation, and until the prosecutors have had their fill, he will stay behind bars.
Pam LaBorde, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Corrections, told Truthout that the attorney general would be appealing Woodfox’s exoneration. She said that she does not know when a trial will take place, adding, “We’re very early in the process.”
“He has to remain in prison until the new trial takes place,” LaBorde said.
Woodfox’s case brings to light the startling reality that defendants who have been declared innocent may languish in prison indefinitely, due to endless litigation or conflicting legal technicalities. An overturned conviction is often countered by prosecutors with a “stay the mandate” motion, requiring prisoners to remain incarcerated until appeal. Due to poor lawyers, influential prosecutors and ever-changing legal statutes, the motion is often granted.
Woodfox’s lawyers have called upon the state of Louisiana to drop its attempts at retrial, arguing that an immediate release is the only humane option.
“How can Louisiana continue to imprison a 61-year-old man after a federal judge has ruled that he shouldn’t have been convicted in the first place?” Nick Trenticosta, one of Woodfox’s attorneys, told the San Francisco Bay View in July. “The state needs to move forward. Albert must be released.”
However, according to a spokeswoman for the Louisiana attorney general’s office, a motion for reconsideration has been filed, and the state could even take the case to the Supreme Court, leaving Woodfox incarcerated for the foreseeable future.
“I don’t think we have a timeline,” the attorney general’s spokeswoman told Truthout.
The situation is not atypical, according to Kerry Max Cook, who spent 22 years on death row for a murder he did not commit. He recently published the book “Chasing Justice,” which details his battle to prove his innocence and gain his freedom. Cook, who was declared innocent in 1999, cites his own case as an example of post-exoneration incarceration.
“The mandate [for release] had been issued and I still remained on death row, though I had no more conviction,” Cook told Truthout. “I myself had to petition the state district judge and demand the Constitution be followed and I be removed from death row. Some lawyers won’t fight for their clients, and the client has to fight for themselves like I did.”
For clients who do not or cannot “fight for themselves,” an open-ended prison sentence may be inevitable, hinging on the whims of prosecutors and judges.
Another reason prisoners may stay incarcerated when they should be released: Legal statutes on sentencing change often and quickly, and sometimes a prisoner’s release date is simply computed wrong, according to Rene Aucoin, a New England journalist who has followed the matter closely.
“Say you were arrested in 1993 and the statutes mandated that you serve 75 percent of your sentence. Say the statutes were changed and/or new statutes created so that the law mandates inmates serve 85 percent of their sentence. By the time your release/parole date is near, the statutes have been changed again, and since you were convicted so long ago and have been incarcerated through several changes in legal statutes, no one remembers how the original law worked,” Aucoin told Truthout.
When prisoners are not properly represented and are not advised on sentencing policy, such breaches slip by unnoticed. Cook partially attributes illegal extended incarceration to “laziness and unconcern” on the part of judges and the prison system.
In the Woodfox case, judges and defendants alike cited another culprit: discrimination. Before they were charged with murder, Woodfox and his two co-defendants - now dubbed the Angola 3, after the Angola Penitentiary where they were incarcerated - were engaged in rallying other inmates to participate in nonviolent protests against the prison’s segregated quarters and ingrained racial violence.
Last year, a magistrate judge noted in her findings for Woodfox’s case, “Punishment for crimes committed 35 years ago, for political beliefs, for religious beliefs, and for leadership qualities are not legitimate penological interests.” Judges’ opinions since have indicated that Woodfox’s conviction may well have been prompted by political and racial discrimination.
In a column for The Guardian UK, Helen Kinsella notes that 36 years later, that same motivation may well be driving Woodfox’s continued incarceration. She notes that some of the same players may even be involved.
“The attorney general’s second-in-command, John Sinquefield, who is helping to preside over the decision to continue fighting the case, is implicated in some of the wrongdoings referred to in the magistrate’s June report,” Kinsella writes.
The attorney general’s office did not return requests for comment on Sinquefield’s connection to the case by press time.
According to Cook, who is gay, discrimination played a direct role in his own past-due incarceration.
“As a convicted homosexual I always struggled to get basic human rights in Texas,” Cook said, noting that he was unable to use those civil rights violations to defend himself in court and in his petitions for release.
A host of other impetuses may result in prisoners staying in jail past their release dates. For example, in some states, if an inmate is eligible for parole but has nowhere to “parole to,” he or she must remain in prison.
Illinois mother Carleen Cross is currently experiencing that phenomenon firsthand. Her son completed his sentence last October, but due to the nature of his crime and the effect it’s had on their family, Cross and her relatives could not take him in during his parole period. Since there is no approved public facility in Cross’s area that houses sex crime parolees, her son was denied release.
“We had 48 government-approved beds in the state for sex offenders and that’s been cut to 28, so he won’t ever get one of those,” Cross told Truthout.
Therefore, her son is serving out his parole time in prison. He will not be released until October 2010 - two full years after his intended release date.
“There is no one to help him at all or even visit but me,” Cross said. “He made the statement to me last week that he knows what it feels like to be dead.”