Louisiana attorney general asks U.S. 5th Circuit to reject inmate's bid for new trial


by Laura Maggi, The Times-Picayune
Tuesday March 03, 2009, 2:00 PM

Arguing that Angola inmate Albert Woodfox received aggressive representation in a 1998 trial that ended with his conviction for killing a prison guard, a state lawyer today asked the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to preserve his guilty verdict.

The 1998 trial was the second time Woodfox was prosecuted for killing correctional officer Brent Miller in 1972. Last fall, a federal judge in Baton Rouge found that his defense counsel in the retrial was ineffective, ordering the state to try Woodfox for the third time or drop the case.

The stabbing of Miller, a young guard, rocked the Louisiana State Penitentiary at a violent time for the infamous prison, when Woodfox and other inmates were organizing as members of the Black Panther party to put an end to rampant inmate rape and other horrific conditions.

Kyle Duncan, the head of Attorney General Buddy Caldwell's appellate division, argued before a three-judge panel that U.S. District Judge James Brady made the wrong decision. Woodfox received adequate representation, although his lawyers did not prevail in convincing the jury that Woodfox was framed by prison officials because of his activism as a member of the Black Panther party, Duncan said.

"They were effective," he said of Woodfox's two lawyers. "They were not successful."

Nicholas Trenticosta, a lawyer representing Woodfox, argued that his client's lawyers clearly were ineffective, as they didn't take obvious steps to knock holes in what he termed a "terrible case."

"This was not a strong case for the state of Louisiana at trial," Trenticosta said, arguing it was largely based on testimony by "questionable characters." Defense attorneys failed to adequately attack or question evidence against Woodfox, while also neglecting to present evidence to help establish his innocence, he said.

The arguments were heard by appellate Judges Carolyn Dineen King, Carl E. Steart and Leslie H. Southwick.

Woodfox is one of the "Angola 3" inmates, three prisoners placed for decades in solitary confinement. Supporters believe the three were targeted by prison officials for their activism and involvement in the Panther party.

Prison officials argued that both Woodfox and Herman Wallace were guilty of killing Miller and dealt with appropriately, kept in conditions that Caldwell argued cannot be termed "solitary confinement."

While the prisoners are kept in single cells, they are on tiers and have the ability to talk to other inmates, Caldwell said, noting they also have access to television.

Wallace's conviction is also on appeal, facing a review by the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Robert King Wilkerson, the third Angola 3 inmate, was released in 2002 after spending 29 years on lockdown with Woodfox and Wallace. Also a member of the Panther party, Wilkerson was convicted of killing another inmate. After enduring years of appeals, he eventually agreed to a plea deal that freed him.

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