Herman Wallace: Justice deferred to the end
Herman’s only solace is that today he died a free man.
Herman Wallace spent over 41 years in solitary confinement in prison in Louisiana, and today, at 71 years old, he finally passed away after losing his battle with liver cancer.
A brief taste of freedom
This week a federal judge overturned his conviction. But even then, consistent with their decades-long obsession with keeping Herman behind bars, the state of Louisiana appealed against the court order for his immediate release. Thankfully, within hours, the same federal judge denied the appeal and threatened to hold the state in contempt of court. Only then did the state finally release Herman. He was so weak that he left the prison by ambulance, and taken straight to hospital.
From the unsafe conviction at his deeply flawed trial in 1974, to 41 years of confinement in cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions, to a belated terminal diagnosis and his death, Herman Wallace’s treatment at the hands of the state was dogged by a fundamental disregard for his human rights.
We’ve campaiged for Herman to be released from isolation for years. And more recently, after he was diagnosed with liver cancer, we asked that for his release, in order to spend his last days with his loved ones.
Convicted on flawed grounds
Herman was convicted in 1974 of the murder of a prison guard, Brent Miller, by an all-white male jury.
- No DNA evidence linked him to the crime - not even the knife or the bloody prints found at the scene.
- The testimony of the main witness was later revealed to have been bought by the state in return for favours, including a pardon.
In 2006, based on the strength of prosecutorial misconduct and on constitutional violations, a state judicial Commissioner recommended reversing Herman’s conviction. But the Louisiana Supreme Court denied his appeal without comment.
In 2009, Herman Wallace sought review of his case by the federal courts. Tuesday’s ruling overturned his conviction on the basis of the systematic exclusion of women from the grand jury that indicted him for the murder in 1973. This is one of many irregularities that have been raised in the case.
Four decades in solitary
Immediately following Brent Miller's murder, Herman Wallace was placed in solitary confinement in a cell measuring two by three metres and confined in this tiny space for 23 hours a day.
He was denied access to meaningful social interaction, work opportunities, education and rehabilitation programmes. During his 41 years in solitary confinement he was only allowed out of his cell for seven hours a week, which he would spend showering or in solitary recreation. Under international law, these conditions amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. There is only one other person who we know of in the US who has been held for longer than Herman has under such harsh conditions.
To compound the injustice of being held in cruel conditions for decades, Herman was denied meaningful review of the reasons behind the decision to keep him in solitary confinement. Since 1972, the prison review board considered and reaffirmed the original decision to keep Herman in lockdown on more than 160 occasions. The prison authorities' decision to keep him in isolation could not have been based on his behaviour, as prison records demonstrate that he had not committed any serious disciplinary infractions for decades, and his mental health records indicate that he posed no threat to himself or others.
Punished for his political beliefs
Herman Wallace consistently proclaimed his innocence. He believed he was falsely implicated for his political activism in prison as a member of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Together with Albert Woodfox, also convicted of the same crime, they set up the first prison chapter of the BPP within Louisiana State Prison in the 70s. They strove to unite all prisoners to fight against the rampant sexual abuse and violence that marked out the prison as one of the bloodiest of its time. Herman and Albert, along with Robert King, are known as the 'Angola 3' after the prison that detained them for so long.
There was never any justifiable reason to subject Hermanto such prolonged isolation. His treatment by Louisiana authorities breached fundamental principles that 'all prisoners, regardless of their background, must be treated humanely'. Before being diagnosed with liver cancer in June, Herman’s living conditions had already affected his physical and psychological health.
In 2007 a federal judge ruled that the conditions under which he was being held constituted a deprivation of basic human needs and that prison officials should have been aware that such treatment could be seriously harmful to the physical and mental health of prisoners.
In June 2013 following a late diagnosis that only came after he had lost over 50 pounds in weight, Herman Wallace was moved from isolation to a medium security dormitory in the prison infirmary. According to his lawyers both before and after his diagnosis he received substandard medical care from the prison authorities.
It is deplorable that Herman Wallace was not released from prison earlier. Over 110,000 people petitioned the Governor of Louisiana to grant this request.
Albert remains in solitary
Albert Woodfox, fellow member of the Angola 3, remains in solitary to this day. He has, like Herman, consistently maintained his innocence.
Though his conviction was recently overturned by the federal court for the third time, he remains in prison pending a further appeal by the state.
We will continue to seek Albert's immediate removal from isolation. In a case that has always been more about vengeance than justice, the state should immediately withdraw their appeal, and allow Albert his freedom before it is too late.
Our thoughts are with Herman’s loved ones, and with Robert and Albert.
Write your message for Robert, Albert and Herman’s friends and family below, and we’ll pass it on.
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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.