A state court official has recommended reversing the murder conviction of a former Black Panther who has been held in solitary confinement at Louisiana’s state penitentiary since the early 1970s.
Inmate rights activists have fought for years for a new trial for Herman Wallace, who was originally sent to the state prison at Angola after an armed robbery conviction, then found guilty of stabbing to death a guard in 1972.
Rachel Morgan, the court commissioner in the case, recommended this week to reverse the conviction. Wallace’s attorney, Nick Trenticosta, received the recommendation Thursday. Morgan’s recommendation could be rejected by the trial judge, but it was not clear when state District Judge Michael Irwin would make a decision.
Wallace, Albert Woodfox and Robert Wilkerson are known as the “Angola Three,” considered by prisoners’ rights groups to be wrongly held in solitary confinement because of their political activity with the now-defunct Black Panthers.
Wilkerson was released in 2001 after a judge overturned his conviction for killing another inmate. Prison officials have said Wallace and Woodfox are in solitary because they would be endangered if returned to the general prison population.
Trenticosta argued in a September hearing that his client’s conviction was tainted because prison officials had bribed the star witness into testifying against Wallace.
Prosecutors argued there was no proof of bribery. Dale Lee, the assistant district attorney who opposed reversal of the conviction, did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.
Weekly cigarettes and a house
A former guard said that Hezekiah Brown, a fellow inmate, received favorable treatment after testifying; he began receiving a weekly carton of cigarettes and was transferred from a main prison building to a house with his own room and television set.
Trenticosta said Brown also won a promise from C. Murray Henderson, warden at the time, that he would help the inmate win release from prison. Trenticosta argued that the warden’s promise, plus the cigarettes and cushy new housing, amounted to a payoff in exchange for testimony implicating Wallace in the killing.
Trenticosta said the promise and the favorable treatment had been withheld from Wallace’s defense lawyer, who should have had the opportunity to tell jurors — information that could have led them to believe Brown was lying.
In her recommendation, Morgan agreed, writing that she believed “Warden Henderson did promise to help Brown with a pardon before Brown testified and that he did authorize other favors within the prison.”
Those favors, she said, “should have been disclosed to the defense before trial, as they weighed on the credibility of Hezekiah Brown.”
In the hearing, Lee argued that prison authorities were correct to segregate Brown in new housing quarters after his testimony, because he would have faced retribution from other inmates angry at him for helping prison authorities.
Lee also argued that there was no proof that Henderson promised to help Brown with his pardon, though Trenticosta produced testimony and correspondence in which Henderson appeared to acknowledge making such promises.