The Woodfox Judgement

Thanks to right-wing courts, the draconian sentencing guidelines passed by state and federal legislatures–and, believe it or not, the actions of Bill Clinton–the numbers of older prisoners in American prisons and jails is growing. More and more men and women have been given such long sentences that they will die in prison, and it’s become virtually impossible for most of them to mount appeals.

As one extreme case in point, yesterday the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a decision against Albert Woodfox, a member of the Angola 3. Woodfox, who is now 63 years old, has been at Angola since he was 34, and in solitary confinement for 38 years. Last night on Solitary Watch, Jean Casella and I posted this:

Albert Woodfox has spent nearly all of the last 38 years in solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. His case has brought protests from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, who argue that Woodfox’s decades in lockdown constitute torture, and from a growing band of supporters, who believe that he was denied a fair trial. For more than ten years, he has been fighting for his release in the courts. But yesterday, a ruling by a federal appeals court ensured that for the forseeable future, Albert Woodfox will remain right where he has been for nearly four decades: in a 6 x 9 cell in the heart of America’s largest and most notorious prison.  

Woodfox was given a life sentence–and thrown into permanent lockdown–for the 1972 murder of an Angola prison guard. He has been appealing his case for years, arguing that he was convicted in a patently unfair trial based on tainted evidence. In 2008, a federal district court judge agreed, and overturned his conviction. But the Fifth Circuit came down on the side of the state of Louisiana, ruling that Woodfox’s conviction stands.

It’s hard to believe this powerful federal court once was once a great defender of civil rights:

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals once had a reputation as one of the finest appellate courts in the land. In the 1960s, a small group of Fifth Circuit judges—mostly Southern-bred moderate Republicans—was known for advancing civil rights and especially school desegregation.  But today the Fifth Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi, is seen as among the most ideologically conservative of the federal appeals courts. It is notable for its overburdened docket and for its hostility to appeals from defendants in capital cases, including claims based on faulty prosecution and suppressed evidence. The court has even been reprimanded by the U.S. Supreme Court, itself is no friend to death row inmates: In June 2004, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that the Fifth Circuit was “paying lip service to principles” of appellate law in handing down death penalty rulings.  

The Court’s rightward descent is set against a background of the unyielding Supreme Court–an institution that has clearly become an enemy of the people. But contrary to what liberals like to think, these problems did not begin with the Bush Administration. In doing their dirty work, the courts can cite legislation passed under Bill Clinton.    

I can well remember the first hint of what we could expect under President Clinton in the area of criminal justice. During the 1992 Democratic primary in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton, in an  answer to a question  at a town meeting, suggested habeas corpus had been stretched beyond its bounds. Her husband proceeded to rectify this situation, with dire results for the rights of prisoners and the accused:

The decision in Woodfox’s case shows the crippling effect on prisoners’ rights of the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) which was passed under Bill Clinton in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. That legislation has become the bane of anti-death penalty lawyers and activists, and of thousands of other prisoners seeking to challenge their convictions–a pursuit which AEDPA now renders nearly impossible.  

As the Fifth Circuit noted in its ruling, “The AEDPA requires that federal courts ’defer to a state court’s adjudication of a claim’” unless the state court decision ran “‘contrary to…clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court,’” or was ”‘based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.’” And as the judges pointed out, ”An unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect or erroneous application of the law.” 

In other words, the state courts could be wrong, they just couldn’t be so far out as to be undeniably “unreasonable.” And in the end, the Fifth Circuit judges agreed with the State’s argument that in the case at hand, ”the district court failed to apply the AEDPA’s heightened deferential standard of review to Woodfox’s ineffective assistance claims.” Woodfox’s conviction may have been wrong, but it was not, in the eyes of the Fifth Circuit, “unreasonable”–so there will be no new trial for him. This is how justice works in post-AEDPA America.

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