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Dying ex-Black Panther freed after 40 years in solitary

Photo courtesy of martincasas.org Photo courtesy of martincasas.org
A terminally ill former Black Panther, who spent 40 years in solitary confinement for murder, was set free Tuesday after a judge reversed his controversial 1974 conviction for murder, AFP reports. Judge Brian Jackson on Tuesday "ordered that the state immediately release Mr. (Herman) Wallace from custody," according to a copy of the decision obtained by AFP. He was left the prison in an ambulance at 7:30 pm (0030 GMT), and now "will be able to receive the medical care that his advanced liver cancer requires," his lawyers said. Wallace, 72, who is dying from liver cancer, is one of the "Angola three," named after a notorious prison where they were held, built on the site of a former plantation worked by slaves from Africa. The three embraced the Black Panther movement -- a black, revolutionary socialist organization -- while already in prison for lesser crimes. They were active in organizing sit-ins and other protests to demand desegregation 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. Wallace, who was behind bars for armed robbery, and fellow Panther Albert Woodfox, were sentenced to life after being convicted of stabbing a white prison guard to death in 1972. A third, Robert King, was never charged but blamed for the murder nonetheless and, like Wallace and Woodfox, placed in solitary confinement. He was released after 29 years. According to Wallace's defense counsel, the charges against him rested 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. With his health deteriorating, Wallace wrote in July to Judge 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. On Tuesday, Jackson voided Wallace's "conviction and sentence, on the ground that systematic exclusion of women from the grand jury that indicted him violated the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection of the laws." Jackson also ordered Louisiana to decide within 30 days if it intends to reprosecute Wallace. Later Tuesday, the judge rejected an appeal from the prosecutor's office, ruling that Wallace has served four decades "under a conviction and sentence based on an unconstitutional indictment" and, given his age and poor health, was unlikely to be a "a flight risk or a danger to the public." Louisiana's governor's office and the state attorney general were unavailable for comment. Amnesty International, which had called for Wallace's release, cheered the decision even as it lamented that it came only as he "is dying from cancer with only days or hours left to live. "No ruling can erase the cruel, inhuman and degrading prison conditions he endured for more than 41 years -- confined alone to a tiny cell for 23 hours a day," the group's executive director, Steven Hawkins, said in a statement. Meanwhile, Wallace's defense team pledged that "litigation challenging Mr. Wallace's unconstitutional confinement in solitary confinement for four decades will continue in his name."

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