Criminal Justice

Inmate held 41 years in solitary dies just days after court orders his release from prison

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An inmate held in solitary confinement for 41 years for the murder of a Louisiana prison guard has died just a few days after he was released from prison because of a federal judge’s order.

The New York Times reports that the inmate, Herman Wallace, died Friday morning from liver cancer at the age of 71, while the New Orleans Times-Picayune says Wallace died late Thursday. He had maintained his innocence in the murder until he died.

Wallace was a member of the Black Panthers and was in prison for armed robbery when he and two others were convicted in the prison guard’s 1972 slaying. The group was known as the Angola Three, based on the site of the prison. A lawyer for Wallace, George Kendall, told the Times that the conviction was based on shoddy evidence and alleged that the convicted men were kept in solitary because prison officials were worried they would organize the prison for the Panthers.

Wallace’s lawyers claim he was convicted based on accounts by witnesses who were given incentives to testify, but the deals weren’t disclosed until decades later.

U.S. District Chief Judge Brian Jackson ruled on Tuesday that Wallace’s habeas petition should be granted because of systematic exclusion of women from the Louisiana grand jury that returned the indictment. Wallace was re-indicted on Thursday, the stories say.

Wallace’s legal team included pro bono lawyers from Squire Sanders. Among those working on his case were Kendall, who is director of the firm’s public service initiative, and associate Carine Williams, according to a press release.

“Herman endured what very few of us can imagine, and he did it with grace, dignity, and empathy to the end,” Wallace’s legal team said 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.’ ‘”

The full statement is available on the New York Times blog The Lede. Another member of the Angola Three remains in solitary; he is challenging his daily strip searches in a lawsuit, The Lede says.

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