Squire Sanders Secures Prisoner's Deathbed Release
Correction, 10/11/13, 10:00 a.m. EDT: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized George Kendall's title. He is the director of Squire Sanders's Public Service Initiative, not its pro bono program. The second and third paragraphs of the story have been revised to reflect this correction. We regret the error.
Early on October 1, Squire Sanders associate Carine Williams was driving south on Interstate 10 in Louisiana when her iPhone shook her out of a sad reverie. She was headed toward what would probably be her last visit to her client Herman Wallace, one of the so-called Angola Three inmates at Louisiana’s Angola prison who had been held in solitary confinement for decades. A magistrate judge had recommended that the U.S. district court in Baton Rouge deny Wallace’s habeas corpus petition. Squire Sanders had just filed a 30-page opposition brief, but the chances that the 71-year-old Wallace, who had liver cancer, would live to see release "were slim to none," she says.
On the line was Squire Sanders of counsel George Kendall. "He said, ‘Have you heard the good news? Wallace has been granted full relief,' " Williams recalls. "I almost drove off the road."
Williams, 35, a litigation associate in Squire Sanders’s New York office, had devoted most of her five years at the firm to Wallace’s case and those of fellow Angola Three members Albert Woodfox and Robert King. This was at least her 50th trip to Louisiana since Kendall, head of Squire Sanders's Public Service Initiative, had agreed to lead Wallace’s federal case in 2009 at the request of Wallace’s longtime counsel, Nicholas Trenticosta. At that point, Wallace had exhausted state court remedies after 18 years of petitioning to have his conviction in the 1972 stabbing death of a prison guard overturned. Wallace, who was already serving a sentence for armed robbery in 1972 and had cofounded a prison Black Panther Party chapter, like his codefendant Woodfox, had always claimed to be innocent. Both alleged in separate petitions that they did not receive fair trials due to all-white, all-male juries, and because prosecutors had withheld key evidence. The state rejected their claims.
Now Williams raced to Wallace’s bedside to give him the news: U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson had ordered him released because Louisiana’s previous exclusion of women grand jurors, in particular, had breached his due process rights. Processing such releases generally took five or six days; and Williams knew that Wallace, who had not taken any fluids for 72 hours, might not hold out. But when she called Kendall again, she learned that Jackson had ordered Wallace’s immediate release—an extremely rare outcome. When she told Wallace, she recalls, "he opened his eyes real big and said, 'Wow.' "
Until his illness had forced officials to move him to the prison hospital ward in July, Wallace had spent 23 hours a day for decades confined to a six-by-nine-foot cell. Prison officials, following regulations requiring periodic review of such extreme measures, reupped that confinement every 90 days. A federal civil rights suit filed by Kendall, a onetime American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney, alleges that the reviews were a sham: The prison never did more than check a box on a form indicating that solitary remained necessary “due to the nature of the original offense.” Although Wallace and the others—who were also held in solitary confinement—had clean conduct records and posed no real threat, Kendall says, "year after year after year, the result was the same, as long as that box was checked."
The federal complaint alleges that the treatment of the men constituted cruel and unusual punishment, and that the so-called reviews violated their due process rights. An amended 2008 complaint adds claims that Wallace and Woodfox’s treatment was based not on any real threat, but on the prisoners’ association with the black nationalist movement. The case, which asks for unspecified damages and for injunctive relief, goes to trial next June. (In court filings, the state responds that its reviews met state requirements; that prisoners in solitary receive adequate food, sleep, clothing, and medical attention; and that Woodfox and Wallace couldn’t safely be released from solitary because they allegedly made unauthorized phone calls, attempted to "exert negative control" over other inmates, and were deceptive in other, unspecified ways.)
King was released in 2001. Woodfox, 68, tapping the same legal team, won his habeas corpus petition in February but remains in prison while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reviews the state’s appeal.
Wallace’s release didn’t come easy. With an ambulance waiting to take Wallace to a New Orleans hospice, the warden demanded a printout of the order. Williams drove around looking for a copy machine, ultimately photocopying just the last of the order’s 60 pages at a library because she was short of cash. When she returned to the prison, the state had just filed for an emergency stay. Williams sped back on the highway to Jackson’s Baton Rouge chambers just before closing to alert his clerk that they might be requesting an emergency sanctions hearing. After a wait, the clerk told Williams to look on PACER, the federal court’s electronic docketing system: Jackson had just issued a second order threatening sanctions if Wallace was not released forthwith. At 6:40 p.m., Wallace was finally wheeled into the ambulance.
On October 3 the district attorney in East Feliciana, Louisiana, announced that a grand jury had reindicted him in the 1972 murder. Wallace, whose unbowed and whimsical personality was captured in a PBS film broadcast in July, Herman’s House, never heard the news. After drifting in and out of consciousness, he died a day later.