Angola 3 Prisoner Released
Robert King Wilkerson free after 28 years in solitary
Revolutionary Worker #1093, March 4, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org
On February 8, Robert King Wilkerson, one of the prisoners known collectively as the Angola 3, was finally freed from Louisiana's notorious Angola prison. Wilkerson had been incarcerated for the last 30 years, 28 in solitary confinement, at Angola--for crimes he did not commit. Wilkerson, along with Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, was framed by prison officials and held for almost three decades in inhumane conditions--brutally punished for the "crime" of forming a chapter of the Black Panther Party in prison and fighting against cruel and inhumane conditions.
Story of a Frame-up
In an interview with Dennis Bernstein on KPFA's Flashpoints, Wilkerson recounted how he joined the Black Panther Party in New Orleans Parrish Prison and how the state retaliated against him:
"When I was initially arrested in February 1970, I became aware of certain events that were taking place in society. For instance, I was arrested and charged with armed robbery. I was offered something like 15 years. I didn't do that. This robbery was committed by a person who didn't remotely resemble me and I couldn't see doing 15 years for something like that. To make a long story short, it was during this period that I became aware of the Black Panther Party and it spoke to things that I couldn't address at the time and it helped me to regain focus on what was taking place in society. I became a rebel at that point. I joined the Black Panther Party not long after I was arrested. Many of the Panthers that were arrested in a shootout came to the Parrish Prison. I became aware of what was taking place and I met those guys. We started to do things. We became an extension of the Black Panther Party. We carried its program into the Parrish Prison through certain means of communication. We started to deal with conditions in the Parrish Prison. We organized a hunger strike. At one time we got almost the whole prison--I think about 700 prisoners--to go on a hunger strike. The prison conditions were so horrible. You had not mice, but rats, that would stand up on their toes and hold their hands up. It was filthy. The sanitary conditions were null and void. The food was horrible...We were treated with so much indignity that we decided that we would demand to be treated with some form of dignity. So that's why we went on a hunger strike. We were successful. After we went on the hunger strike the prison came along and did some things and they kind of revised some of their actions toward inmates. But it also focused attention on some inmates...."
Wilkerson arrived at Angola in April 1972 shortly after a guard was killed in the prison. Angola officials placed him directly into solitary confinement because of his reputation as an activist. The authorities told him he was assigned to segregation because he was "under investigation," but they wouldn't tell him what they were investigating. Some 19 years later, perhaps by accident, the classification board told him that he was being investigated for the killing of the guard, even though the murder took place before he even got to Angola! For the past 28 years, Angola's classification committee has reviewed Wilkerson's Closed Cell Restricted placement (CCR is the jail's solitary confinement unit) every three months. Each time they have told him that his continued confinement in isolation is justified by the fact that he is "under investigation."
On June 10, 1973, a fight broke out on CCR's B Tier (where Wilkerson was held) between two inmates, and one was stabbed to death. Eleven of the tier's 14 inmates had been out of their cells at the time of the fight. All 11 inmates were indicted for the murder. Charges against nine were later dropped, but indictments against Wilkerson and one other inmate remained.
During Wilkerson's trial for murder, the judge ordered both defendants shackled and had their mouths duct-taped shut in front of the jury. Wilkerson and the other prisoner were both convicted, almost entirely on the basis of two inmates' testimony. In 1974, the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed Wilkerson's conviction, ruling that it had been improper for the trial judge to gag Wilkerson.
In 1975, Wilkerson was tried again in St. Francisville, the closest town to Angola, and a place where most of the jury pool is composed of prison employees, their families, and their friends. This time, one of the state's prisoner witnesses refused to testify. Wilkerson's co-defendant took the stand and testified that he alone had stabbed the other prisoner in an act of self-defense. Nevertheless, on the basis of one inmate's testimony, and in the face of compelling evidence showing Wilkerson's innocence, the jury re-convicted Wilkerson. Once again, he received a sentence of natural life, meaning life without the possibility of parole.
In the years since, the case against Wilkerson further evaporated. Both inmates who originally testified against him recanted their testimony. One signed an affidavit swearing that his trial testimony was prepared by former Angola warden Richard H. Butler, and that officials told him that if he did not testify he would be tried for the murder and would be given the death penalty.
The other inmate also signed an affidavit in which he admitted his trial testimony was false. He swore that he had been in the shower when Kelly was killed--that he had not been in a position to witness the crime.
But even with all this evidence of Wilkerson's innocence the authorities did not set him free. In 1994, the U.S. Court of Appeals granted Wilkerson a new trial after it acknowledged that African Americans and women had unconstitutionally been excluded from the grand jury that indicted him. Only months later, however, the court decided to rehear the case, and reversed their previous decision, taking away his new trial.
Wilkerson's release finally came after the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals granted post-conviction relief and ordered the U.S. District Court to examine the evidence in a hearing. This victory was the result of hard work by attorneys who have taken up the cases of the Angola 3 and the Angola 3 Support Committee that has been waging an ongoing struggle to free the prisoners.
Recent federal law has greatly restricted repeat appeals like Wilkerson's, creating huge evidentiary barriers that are almost impossible to prove. A prisoner must show a constitutional violation at his trial that contributed to the conviction and must show through new evidence "that it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror could have convicted him in light of the new evidence." Rather than face a new trial against Wilkerson with no evidence the prosecutors allowed him to plead to charges that allowed him to walk out of jail with time served.
"Hell yeah, I'm bitter," Wilkerson said after his release. "I was not only unjustly confined but I was locked away in a prison within a prison. But I am able to rise above the bitterness that comes from being locked away unjustly for 28 years in solitary confinement. I will rise above the bitterness because I have work to do. I have left two of my comrades and other folks behind. I think my focus now is to remain focused. Work for them together with the other people who are working for them. I think that we have set a precedent. I think the same thing that happened for me can happen for them. Like myself they were unjustly convicted and they are being held in solitary confinement for crimes they did not commit. The prison officials know they didn't do it. But they have continued those lies for 30 years. The length of lies goes on. It's up to me and others to dispel that legacy of lies .... We want to focus on the whole prison industrial complex. There are a lot of guys in Angola who are innocent. All the records, all the facts show that they are innocent. It is incumbent upon me to fight for them as well as my comrades. If I got out we can also get them out."
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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