WASHINGTON- Herman Wallace, a former Black Panther who has spent 40 years in solitary confinement for murdering a prison guard, is imploring the courts to free him before he dies of cancer.
The 72-year-old is one of the “Angola three,” whose cases have drawn international attention because of the long stretches they have spent in solitary.
They are named after the notorious Louisiana state prison where they were held, known as Angola because it was built on the site of a former plantation worked by slaves from Africa.
The three embraced the Black Panther movement while already in prison for lesser crimes.
They were active in organizing sit-ins and other protests to demand desegregation of the prison and better protection of inmates against abuses.
At the time, the prison had no black guards and a reputation as one of the most violent in the United States.
“Black Pantherism was clearly very unpopular in Louisiana in the 70’s. It was the reason why they were suspected in the first place,” his lawyer Carine Williams told AFP.
“Even today, they were held so long in solitary confinement because they practiced Black Pantherism. That has definitely impacted the misconduct in this case,” she said.
Wallace, who was in prison for armed robbery, and fellow Panther Albert Woodfox were sentenced to life after being convicted of stabbing a prison guard to death.
A third inmate, Robert King, was never charged but blamed for the murder nonetheless and like Wallace and Woodfox placed in solitary confinement.
King was released after 29 years in prison, after his original conviction on an unrelated charge was overturned.
According to Wallace’s defense counsel, the charges against him rest on the “incoherent” testimony of four prisoners who later retracted their statements.
No fingerprints taken from the scene matched those of the men convicted of the crime, and witnesses said they were working in another part of the prison.
In July, Wallace wrote to US District Judge Brian Jackson to plead for an expedited review of his case, noting that it had been three and a half years since he had filed a habeas corpus petition and no action had been taken.
“I’m thinking somehow my case file has been misplaced or forgotten about,” he wrote.
His lawyers argued that Wallace’s health was rapidly deteriorating.
“Wallace’s claims of constitutional error in this case are exceptionally persuasive and should prevail,” they said.
“Finally, and most importantly, Wallace has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Further delay in the effective and expeditious administration of judicial review in this case may very well result in manifest injustice.”
Jackson agreed to an expedited review of Wallace’s case, but a month later denied his request for medical parole, which prosecutors had vehemently opposed.
“The state will utilize every means to prevent Wallace’s release,” US District Attorney Hillar Moore said at the time, stressing that Wallace’s conviction of murder had been upheld twice by Louisiana courts.
“He fails to show the existence of exceptional circumstances… making him deserving of special treatment,” he said.
Since being hospitalized, Wallace has taken to the Internet to plead for his release.
“I have been given two months to live. I want the world to know that I am an innocent man and that Albert Woodfox is innocent as well,” he wrote on the “Angola Three” blog on September 10.
Two doctors have joined Amnesty International in calling for Wallace’s release on grounds that his care in the prison hospital is inadequate and his health is failing.
“Wallace has a very poor prognosis, and he is declining in health even more quickly than I had anticipated,” said Williams, who saw his client on Wednesday, noting he has lost more than 30 pounds in weight since June.
“This deterioration points to a very grim prognosis.”
Oncologist Dwight McKee said Wallace’s release was “literally a life or death issue.”
Contacted by AFP, the Louisiana’s governor’s office and the Louisiana state attorney general refused requests for comment.