Herman Wallace, one of the "Angola 3," died Friday morning, three days after a federal judge overturned his 1974 murder conviction and ordered his immediate release from prison.
Herman Wallace, a member of the “Angola 3,” died Friday morning, three days after a federal judge overturned his conviction and ordered his immediate release from prison.
Wallace was convicted by an all-white, all-male jury in 1974 along with two fellow inmates of the murder of prison guard Brent Miller two years earlier. Wallace, who had been serving a 50-year term for armed robbery at the time of Miller’s murder, maintained his innocence throughout his more than 41 years of solitary confinement. Stricken with liver cancer in recent years, Wallace was released this week after a lengthy legal fight by his attorneys and prisoner’s-rights advocates.
“Herman endured what very few of us can imagine, and he did it with grace, dignity, and empathy to the end,” said his legal team in a statement. “Although his freedom was much too brief, it meant the world to Herman to spend these last three days surrounded by the love of his family and friends. One of the final things that Herman said to us was, ‘I am free. I am free.’”
Correctional Association of New York executive director Soffiyah Elijah had known Wallace for decades, and spoke to MSNBC Friday about his legacy. “I know from the messages I was getting he very much felt that it was important for his situation to educate the public about solitary confinement and the over-incarceration [in] the United States,” she said.
Despite the fight for his release to be a “compassionate release,” due to his terminal illness, Wallace’s freedom was granted for a different reason entirely. Chief U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson of Baton Rouge ruled Monday that women were unconstitutionally excluded from the jury that convicted him along with fellow inmates Albert Woodfox and Robert King (who was exonerated 12 years ago; Woodfox remains in solitary confinement). Jackson’s ruling rendered Wallace’s trial and sentence likewise unconstitutional–which Amnesty International executive director Steven Hawkins agreed with.
“The entire trial and conviction was just filled with inconsistencies and errors, and for the judge to be finding unconstitutional measures is telling of what happened in 1971,” Hawkins said in an interview shortly after Wallace’s release on Tuesday. Amnesty International campaigned for years for Wallace to be released from isolation and later, to be released from prison when he received his cancer diagnosis.
Hawkins also expressed hope that prosecutors in the state of Louisiana would stop trying to prosecute Wallace. State officials, however, did not rest–as anticipated. Wallace attorney Nick Trenticosta predicted back in July, noting on that “the state of Louisiana in the past six years has spent $6 million in lawyer fees to keep a 71-year-old man in solitary confinement.” The state immediately filed a request to stop Wallace’s release, a request that Judge Jackson summarily denied. Trenticosta told MSNBC Friday that he was “shocked” not only at the ruling, but also how quickly the judge acted.
Wallace’s death came on the same morning a new report emerged from the Baton Rouge that Feliciana Parish District Attorney Samuel D’Aquilla had re-indicted Wallace on the same murder charges.
Reached by MSNBC on Friday, D’Aquilla said that he had pressed for a new prosecution because Wallace was convicted by a jury–and the fact that it was all white men on that jury wasn’t a problem. “I’m not arguing for his guilt. Those 12 people determined his guilt, not me,” D’Aquilla said. “The judge didn’t overturn the weight of evidence against him.”
The district attorney added that he had compassion for Wallace’s condition, and that is why he was not arrested upon his re-indictment. But D’Aquilla addded that it is the victim, Miller, who deserves compassion.
“He didn’t kill a dog, he didn’t kill a fish, he killed a person,” he said of Wallace. “He wasn’t compassionate when he knifed the man. People need to understand, he was a murderer. And he died as a murderer.”
D’Aquilla also questioned the wisdom of the judge’s ruling from a legal standpoint, arguing that the rule that women needed to be on the jury was instituted after the 1974 conviction. “Years from now, they may make it law to have homosexuals on the jury, and then overturn convictions because they didn’t have gays on the jury,” D’Aquilla told MSNBC. “It sets a bad precedent.”
Given Wallace’s death, D’Aquilla said that he is now waiting for an official death certificate, upon which time “we’ll let it go.” Elijah argued that it was wrong at all to seek an indictment against a man in Wallace’s condition. “When something like that happens, it’s like Exhibit A for what’s wrong with our criminal justice system,” she said. “I’d call that ‘blind injustice.‘”
Trenticosta was with Wallace Friday morning when he passed away.
“Miracles do happen. Justice does prevail sometimes, even if it took 41 years to achieve justice,” the attorney said. “It’s hard for me to quickly or briefly explain the spirit of Herman Wallace, but he was a man without bitterness and without anger, and did whatever he could to help people. That’s what he was completely and totally about. I’ve never seen anyone filled with so much love, anywhere, and to see it coming from a man who endured those conditions for so long… it’s sort of superhuman.”
See host Melissa Harris-Perry’s interview with Trenticosta from our July 6 broadcast below, and watch Melissa’s open letter about the “Angola 3″ here.