This July, a federal district court judge granted a motion to expedite ruling on the habeas petition of Herman Wallace, one of the ‘Angola 3,’ a man who served over 40 years in solitary confinement conditions in Louisiana prisons. Mr. Wallace’s habeas petition reveals an unfair trial in which prosecutors unconstitutionally withheld critical evidence. However, justice is moving far too slowly in this case. While Mr. Wallace contends with advanced, terminal liver cancer, he continues to wait for a ruling on his habeas petition, which was submitted four years ago. It is urgent that the courts rule on the petition as soon as possible.
In 1972, Mr. Wallace was an inmate at Angola and a Black Panther, working to bring reform to the prison. When Brett Miller, a young white guard was killed, prison officials targeted politically active inmates as suspects, despite the fact that Mr. Wallace had four alibi witnesses who placed in another part of the prison at the time of the crime. There was no forensic or physical evidence against Mr. Wallace. While there was a bloody fingerprint at the crime scene that did not match the victim or any of the men accused of the crime, prison officials declined to test the prints against the prison population.
At Mr. Wallace’s three-day trial with an all-white, all-male jury, the state’s case consisted of four witnesses against him. As the habeas petition states,
“Each witness gave an account that wildly contradicted the others about important facts. Each of these witnesses also had compelling incentives for falsely testifying against Mr. Wallace… although details about these incentives were unknown to defendants and to the jury at the time of trial. No other evidence connected Mr. Wallace to the murder.” (p.13)
The state’s star witness, Hezekiah Brown, testified that he saw the murder occur on his bed, although photographs of the bed show it was spotless after the crime. Mr. Brown received extensive benefits from testimony. He was transferred to the “dog pen” at Angola, where he lived in his own house with a television. He received a weekly carton of cigarettes from guards, and was given assistance in receiving a pardon from his life sentence.
The habeas petition summarizes the prosecutorial misconduct like this:
“Post-conviction proceedings have revealed that – in a case where the prosecution relied exclusively on inmate testimony to secure a conviction – the State purposefully withheld evidence of details, perjured testimony, and prior inconsistent statements. This evidence would have discredited each and every one of the state’s witnesses.” (p. 27)
Unfortunately, Mr. Wallace’s trial attorney did such a poor job that he failed to file an appeal when his client was convicted of murder. Sixteen years later, in 1990, Mr. Wallace won the right to file his own appeal, and began trying to ferret out the suppressed evidence in his case, despite being confined to his cell 23 hours a day.
Mr. Wallace filed a Public Records Act and a records request with the Twentieth Judicial District; in both cases, the state refused to provide Mr. Wallace with any records. When the Nineteenth and Twentieth Judicial District Courts ordered the State to provide Mr. Wallace’s records, the State “insisted it had no documents pertaining to Mr. Wallace’s case.” (p. 28) Mr. Wallace also subpoenaed Angola prison, which claimed it had no records of the murder of Officer Miller by inmates.
This was proved untrue by the discovery process in 1998 of Mr. Wallace’s co-defendant. Following the revelations of that trial, Mr. Wallace brought an action in 2000 for post-conviction relief alleging that extensive evidence had been unconstitutionally suppressed in his case, including favorable treatment for all four witnesses, evidence that the state itself doubted the veracity of some of their witnesses’ testimony, and contradictory prior statements from the state’s witnesses.
One of the state’s witnesses against Mr. Wallace has since recanted his testimony. Howard Baker’s sworn affidavit explains the pressure that the witnesses were under:
“Angola in those days was life and death, buying and selling people, and the officers knew it was happening…. There was a goon squad of guards. If they came after you, you could get anything from a beating to getting killed, and they’d call it being killed by trying to escape. Physical conditions were about as bad as you could get: hot, dirty, overcrowded. Weapons were everywhere. You could shake down for weapons one night and have just as many the next. I saw as many as four stabbings a week, week after week. I was attacked and got 22 stitches in my head and only had an inmate to stitch me up.
‘When Miller was killed, I wasn’t called in for questioning right away. The word went around from administration that it would be in an inmate’s best interest to say what he knew about Miller’s killing. So I looked at the situation like this, I got 60 something years, and I got a chance to help myself – so I was going to do something to get out of this cesspool.”(p. 41) His affidavit continues, “I lied to try to help myself.” (p. 42).
Mr. Baker goes on to explain that then-Associate Warden Hayden Dees told Mr. Baker his sentence would be commuted in exchange for his testimony. A written pretrial statement confirms this understanding.
Mr. Wallace served over forty years in solitary confinement conditions, and is still waiting for his chance to prove that his 1974 trial was unfair. Because of Mr. Wallace’s advanced and terminal liver cancer, it’s urgent that the federal district judge make good on the July ruling to expedite and make a ruling on Mr. Wallace’s habeas petition right away.
Read the Wallace Habeas Petition.