What happens when we convict the wrong guy?
Generally, nothing happens unless an organized group of committed individuals is willing to spend decades tiltling at legal windmills.
If the alleged crime took place in Dallas County, legal and evidentiary irregularities might be uncovered by a crusading District Attorney named Craig Watkins. If, that is, you’ve got smoking-gun proof of innocence.
But what happens when the evidence suggests we probably convicted the wrong guy?
That puts you into Albert Woodfox and Troy Davis territory. Some legal experts (often at the federal level) say you deserve a new trial. Other authorities (usually state officials) scream “states rights” and dig in their heels.
There are no formal rules in this game. The give-the-guy-his-day-in-court folks line up on one side and the if-he-can’t-prove-he’s innocent-he’s guilty people line up on the other side. Both teams scream at the top of their lungs. Reporters are drawn to the sound and fury but have a hard time making sense of the mess. Ultimately, if you’re really lucky, the mess becomes the story.
Which brings us to the Angola Three tragicomedy. In 1972, Albert Woodfoxand Herman Wallace were charged with murdering a prison guard named Brent Miller. A troop of witnesses told a jury that Woodfox and Wallace did the deed.
If the murder had taken place after 1976 the defendants would have been executed; instead, they were sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison. In Angola prison, the most notorious lock-up in America. In fact, Woodfox and Wallace have spent several decades in solitary confinement.
Then a case held together with duct tape started coming apart. Witnesses started recanting or pointing the finger at other suspects. One witness was paid for his testimony with regular deliveries of cigarettes and other luxuries. Evidence had been kept out of the courtroom.
It is becoming clear that Wallace and Woodfox were prosecuted for political reasons. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, southern politicians like George Wallace were beating the drum for law-and-order and Republicans like Richard Nixon were taking notes. The Black Panthers came to life when young black leaders realized law enforcement had become a tool wielded against political radicals. The paramilitary panthers declared themselves ready to defend themselves against what they considered an occupying force. Incendiary speeches were the order of the day. In Middle America (especially in the South) this “by any means necessary” rhetoric sounded subversive. When Wallace and Nixon demanded law-and-order everybody knew they were talking about Black Panthers and war protestors.
Woodfox and Wallace organized a chapter of the Black Panthers smack dab in the middle of Angola Prison. Prison rape and sexual slavery were actively encouraged at Angola as a means of controlling the prison population. (I know this sounds unlikely, but its a matter of public record.) As James Rucker of Color of Change makes clear, Woodfox and Wallace were targetted for prosecution because they organized their fellow prisoners to resist an ungodly regime.
Warden Burl Cain (a Louisiana icon) admits as much. Albert Woodfoxdeserves to be in solitary confinement for life, Cain believes, even if he wasn’t responsible for Brent Miller’s death. “The thing about him is that he wants to demonstrate,” Cain explains. “He wants to organize. He wants to be defiant . . . I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organize the young new inmates and I’d have the blacks chasing after him and I’d have chaos and conflict.”
Cain has no problem grinding the Constitution under his heel because he knows (or thinks he knows) the hearts and minds of Louisiana voters. They support him for the same reason so many of them were drawn to the racist fascism of David Duke: he’s for law-and-order (which, interpreted, means putting uppity black folk in their place).
According to a report that played yesterday on NPR’s All Things Considered, Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell is singing in tight harmony with Warden Cain. “They [federal judge James Brady who overturned Woodfox’s original conviction and the team of lawyers representing the defendant] don’t need to mess withme,” Caldwell said, “’cause I’m not playing . . . We’re . . . not going to let them get away with that kind of thing. [Woodfox] stays at Angola until further order from the court of appeal.”
Caldwell and company have appealed Judge Brady’s ruling to the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, a court famous for concluding that a sleeping lawyer provided adequate legal representation.
In other words, we’re back to a pushing and screaming match in which the irresistable force called Judge James Brady slams into the unmovable force known as the 5th Circuit.
If Caldwell gets his way, no Louisiana jury will ever hear the long line of witnesses defense counsel has cobbled together.
“When you put evidence on like that you’re going to suffer from it,” he said. “Don’t put evidence like that on in front of me because I’m on to ’em. We just simply need to let the truth surface of what has gone on in this case, and that’s what I’m doing.”
The “truth” Caldwell has in mind is the now-discredited testimony jurors have heard in past trials with no new facts or opinions stirred into the mix.
And what does Governor Bobby Jindal think of all this? He thinks nothing and he says nothing. Anything Mr. Jindal might say could be used in the next election to incriminate him. If the Governor sides with Cain and Caldwell he reinforces the impression that Republicans believe rich white people have a corner on due process. If he weighs in on the side of justice, he puts himself at the mercy of the David Duke constituency.
So the governor says nothing. Which brings the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to mind: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil; God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Bonhoeffer, you may remember, was killed by the Nazis for trying to subvert Hitler’s Reich.
In other words, we’ve got a fine mess on our hands. Fortunately, this particular mess is becoming the story.