Albert Woodfox — the last of a group of high-profile US prisoners known as the "Angola Three" — could walk free within days after a federal judge ordered state officials to release him following four decades of solitary confinement.
US District Judge James Brady, who is overseeing the closely-watched human rights case, said on Monday that the 68-year-old former Black Panther Party prison leader should be granted immediate freedom and not be tried again.
Woodfox was convicted of the murder of a guard stabbed to death in 1972 during upheaval at the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary in the town of Angola, and has spent the last 43 years in solitary confinement.
Brady, who presided over the case from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, ordered Woodfox's unconditional release in a strongly worded ruling.
"The only just remedy is an unconditional writ of habeas corpus barring retrial of Mr. Albert Woodfox and releasing Mr. Woodfox from custody immediately," Brady wrote.
In his ruling, Brady cited doubt that the state could provide a "fair third trial" due to the inmate's age and poor health, the unavailability of witnesses, "the prejudice done onto Mr. Woodfox by spending over forty years in solitary confinement," and "the very fact that Mr. Woodfox has already been tried twice."
A spokesman for the Louisiana attorney general said prosecutors would appeal "to make sure this murderer stays in prison and remains fully accountable for his actions," according to the BBC.
Woodfox, who was initially jailed for armed robbery, was accused, along with three other prisoners, of fatally stabbing Brent Miller, a 23-year-old guard. Miller was killed during a period of prison unrest sparked by Black Panther activism aimed at improving conditions inside Louisiana's notorious jails.
Amnesty International has criticized the judicial process that led to the murder conviction of the Angola Three — there was no DNA evidence and the prosecution was based on unreliable testimony from inmates who may have been bribed by prison officials, said the rights group.
Woodfox was convicted twice at trial, but both convictions were overturned on the grounds of racial prejudice and lack of evidence.
"Mr. Woodfox has spent 40 years in solitary confinement under constitutionally invalid convictions," his lawyers said. "The only just remedy is his immediate release from prison."
Lousiana's mostly for-profit jail system imprisons more people per capita than any other US state — one in every 86 adult Louisianans is in jail, a rate five times that of Iran and 13 times that of China, reported New Orleans newspaper the Times-Picayune in 2012 in an award-winning series on how the state became "the world's prison capital."
Amnesty and the United Nations have condemned Woodfox's imprisonment as inhumane. Human rights advocates contend that solitary confinement of the kind suffered by Woodfox is a form of torture.
Jasmine Heiss, a senior campaigner with Amnesty International USA, called Brady's ruling "a momentous step toward justice." She added that Woodfox has been "trapped in a legal process riddled with flaws."
Louisiana Attorney General James "Buddy" Caldwell has vowed to appeal the federal judge's order.
"With today's order, the court would see fit to set free a twice-convicted murderer," said Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for Caldwell. He called Brady's ruling a "free pass" to freedom "based on faulty procedural issues."
The state has asked for an emergency stay of Brady's ruling from the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
Meanwhile, Tory Pegram of the International Coalition to Free the Angola Three, who is working with Woodfox's lawyers on his release, said she spoke with Woodfox late on Monday. "He's excited and nervous," she said.
The other prisoners in the Angola Three were Robert King and Herman Wallace. All three became members of the Black Panther Party while in prison, Pegram said. She said they were active in hunger strikes and work stoppages to protest conditions at the infamous prison. Pegram said their activism spurred changes that improved prison conditions.
Woodfox and Wallace were both serving armed robbery sentences and contended they were singled out for harsh treatment because of their political activism.
Woodfox and Wallace helped establish a prison chapter of the Black Panther Party at the Angola prison in 1971 and King helped establish a Black Panther chapter in the New Orleans prison, Pegram said.
Wallace died last fall, days after a judge freed him and granted him a new trial. King was released in 2001 after his conviction in the death of a fellow inmate in 1973 was reversed. He has since become a public speaker.
Pegram said Woodfox gets to exercise for one hour three times a week during his confinement at the West Feliciana Parish Detention Center. He has a television to watch and a shower in his cell, she added.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.