Court blocks immediate release of last of Louisiana's 'Angola Three'

By Letitia Stein

(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Friday granted Louisiana's request to block the immediate release of the last of the so-called Angola Three prisoners, a man who has spent most of four decades in solitary confinement charged with the 1972 killing of a prison guard.

Albert Woodfox, 68, is the last of three black inmates who gained notoriety for their long stays in isolation at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. The men said they were targeted for joining the Black Panther Party and advocating for prison reforms.

Woodfox is believed to have spent more time in solitary confinement than nearly any other prisoner in U.S. penal history, mostly in Louisiana's infamous Angola prison in a cell measuring roughly 6 feet by 8 feet (1.8 metres by 2.4 metres), according to his attorney.

U.S. District Judge James Brady on Monday ordered Woodfox's release, in part on the grounds that his two convictions in the death of Brent Miller, a white prison guard, were both overturned.

He was indicted in the murder for a third time in February after his last conviction was overturned and has remained in prison without bail.

Brady's order, which noted that Woodfox was confined in his small cell for 23 hours per day, also barred the state from seeking a third trial.

But the state persuaded the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to temporarily stay the judge's order. On Friday, the appeals court extended the stay to allow it to fully consider the state's appeal of Brady's order.

"There is a substantial interest in staying the release of a person, twice convicted of murder, from being released from a life sentence without the possibility of parole," the court wrote.

Woodfox's attorneys, George Kendall and Carine Williams, said, "We will continue to challenge the right of the state to hold Mr. Woodfox, an elderly man in failing health, in the harshest possible solitary confinement conditions and work to get the medical care he urgently needs at a proper medical facility."

After 43 years in prison, Woodfox suffers from heart disease, renal failure and hepatitis C, they said.

Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for the state attorney general, said Louisiana prosecutors still intend "to hold accountable this murderer who has an extensive history of violent crimes."

Woodfox, initially incarcerated on an armed robbery charge, and a co-defendant, Herman Wallace, maintained their innocence in Miller's slaying.

"Judge Brady's decision to grant him unconditional release should have certainly ended this 43-year-long nightmare," said Steven Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA, which has campaigned for Woodfox's release.

Wallace, who spent nearly 42 years in isolation, won his freedom in October 2013 but died of liver cancer three days after being freed.

The third Angola Three inmate, Robert King, was accused of killing a fellow inmate. He was released from prison in 2001.

(Editing by Will Dunham and Jonathan Oatis)