Did the Wrong Man Spend 40 Years in Solitary Confinement?

What a sham trial in Louisiana says about the U.S. court system
Bogdan Cristel/Reuters

It is now only a matter of weeks, or days perhaps, before Herman Wallace dies of the liver cancer that is ravaging his body. He will likely die in prison, at age 72, without proper medical treatment, after spending nearly four decades in a 6' by 9' cell. He was placed in solitary confinement after being convicted in January 1974 of killing a prison guard at Louisiana's notorious Angola prison. Wallace is black. The guard was white, and so was each member of the southern jury that convicted him.

The case against Wallace was pitifully weak when it was presented to that jury; some of the constitutional infirmities at trial were almost farcical. But over the years the courts of that state, along with Congress and the federal courts, have constructed a mighty wall protecting that jury's verdict. Layer upon layer of procedural protections has been built around it so that today, as Wallace nears death, it is easy to see the vast gulf that exists here between law and justice.

And that, ironically, may be the most important legacy Wallace leaves from his miserable time on this earth. A member of the famed "Angola 3," Wallace in life has been a symbol of many different things to many different people. He has generated more than his share both of pity and scorn. In death, however, he will become a symbol of a justice system that too often prizes finality over accuracy, but without the candor or courage to actually say so. The law says that Herman Wallace got a fair trial. But we all can judge for ourselves what that really meant to a black inmate in Louisiana in 1974.

The Trial

Wallace and three other black prisoners at Angola were charged in May 1972 with the murder of a white guard named Brent Miller. The investigation into the crime was aggressive, naturally, and all of the witnesses, of course, were already incarcerated. There was trouble from the start. The prison warden and the associate warden feuded over how to proceed. At least one inmate later testified that he was beaten during the interrogations that followed. One coerced witness fingered another, who in turned fingered Wallace, who was already well-known to prison officials because of his work on the nascent Angola chapter of the Black Panther Party. Apart from the lack of evidence against him, Wallace was a perfect defendant.

Bloody fingerprints and a knife were found at the crime scene, but none of the prints belonged to Wallace or any of his co-defendants. The state police testified later that although they had on file the fingerprints of every Angola prisoner the bloody prints from the crime scene were checked only against the suspects that prison officials already had identified and just a few more people. Seven witnesses testified that Wallace could not have been at the scene at the time of the crime. Two other witnesses directly implicated Wallace; two others testified against him less directly. Not only was the testimony of these four inmates internally inconsistent, it also was inconsistent with the testimony each of the others had given.

At first, all four co-defendants were represented by the same attorney -- a clear and actionable conflict of interest. Then, midway through the trial, one of Wallace's co-defendants switched sides, made a deal with prosecutors, and became a government witness. During one recess, Chester Jackson left the courtroom as a defendant and returned minutes later, taking a seat with prosecutors at their table. The judge gave Jackson's stunned (now) former attorney all of 30 minutes to "regroup" before requiring him to cross-examine the man who just minutes earlier had been his client. Later, state attorneys would argue that this gave Wallace an advantage because the lawyer had inside information on his former client.

The trial lawyer later said that prosecutors never approached him to ask permission to talk with Jackson. Nor did the judge permit the defense to see two prior written statements Jackson had signed that might have impeached his credibility. In the version of the story Jackson offered at trial, he was able to offer details about the murder -- to implicate Wallace -- even though he said he was hiding behind a wall at the time of the crime. In one of the versions he had signed before trial, he had testified that he had seen, through a window, Wallace stabbing the guard.

In a case with no physical evidence and no confession, the testimonies of the other witnesses against Wallace were both crucial and tainted. One such witness suffered from schizophrenia, a fact hidden from Wallace's attorney. Another witness evidently was at one time during the investigation a suspect in the murder (another fact that was not disclosed at the time of the trial). Yet another inmate, who was not called as a prosecution witness at trial, had given prison officials a statement that might have helped exonerate Wallace. But that statement was never disclosed to the defense.

In the end, after quick deliberations, Wallace was convicted of murder and given a life sentence in Angola -- which meant decades of isolation in a 6' by 9' cell. To make matters worse, his lawyer then failed to appeal his conviction. It would take 16 years, until 1990, before an appellate court took a look at Wallace's case. And by that time, those procedural barriers had begun to pile up. More than 25 years after trial, a hearing commissioner reviewing the record of the case called it "the most disgusting thing I have ever seen." But it didn't matter. That commissioner's recommendation of relief was immediately, and virtually without comment, reversed.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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