Squire Sanders’ Public Service Initiative Wins Significant Victory

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    On Tuesday, October 1, 2013, United States District Judge Brian Jackson, in Baton Rouge, ruled Squire Sanders’ client Herman Wallace’s 1974 murder conviction of a prison guard was unconstitutional. The judge ordered the firm’s client to be released immediately from prison after 41 years of solitary confinement, the longest known period in US history. Squire Sanders’ Public Service Initiative (PSI) has been litigating Mr. Wallace’s habeas case on a pro bono basis since December 2009.

    "The record in this case makes clear that Mr. Wallace's grand jury was improperly chosen in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of 'the equal protection of the laws' ... and that the Louisiana courts, when presented with the opportunity to correct this error, failed to do so," Jackson wrote.

    In 1972, Brent Miller, a young, white guard at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, was killed. At a time when the prison was highly racially polarized, corrections officers quickly cracked down on the politically active Black Panthers within the prison, immediately throwing all of them, including Albert Woodfox, and Mr. Wallace into solitary confinement cells (known as the “dungeon”). Mr. Woodfox and Mr. Wallace were subsequently charged with murder and moved into long-term isolation cells, where they remained for decades after. Despite the lack of forensic or physical evidence, the men were convicted solely on the testimony of four inmate witnesses—each of whom, post-conviction discovery revealed—had been given undisclosed incentives for testifying. For 26 years, the state unconstitutionally suppressed the deals it made with these witnesses as well as inconsistent statements of these witnesses, all of which would have been powerful evidence for the defense.

    Sixteen years after his original trial, Mr. Wallace obtained permission to file his own appeal pro se, which took 19 years to make its way through the Louisiana courts. His appeals were summarily dismissed. Mr. Wallace’s federal habeas petition was filed in 2009. This petition raised not only claims as to wrongful suppressions, but also as to Confrontation Clause violations, improper jury instruction, and discrimination in the grand jury (from which women had been systematically excluded). On October 1, when Judge Jackson vacated Mr. Wallace’s conviction, he also ordered that Mr. Wallace be immediately released from prison and granted his freedom. That evening, Mr. Wallace, at 71 years old and with advanced terminal liver cancer, left a correctional center in St. Gabriel by ambulance. Mr. Wallace received hospice care in the home of his loved ones for three days, until his death on Friday, October 4, 2013.

    This case has generated widespread regional, national, and international in outlets including ABC News, National Public Radio (NPR), CBS Crimesider, Associated Press, BBC Newshour, and Al Jezeera, among others.

    “My lawyering, and life, will forever be informed by what I learned working on this case: deliver excellent work product—there is no margin for error; be tenacious; and never give up hope that the right result will prevail,” said Carine Williams, who led Squire Sanders’ PSI team on Mr. Wallace’s case.

    The Squire Sanders PSI team included alumnus Sam Spital and Carine Williams, who took the lead after Mr. Spital’s departure, and built an overwhelming case for Mr. Wallace’s release. Corrine Irish and George Kendall were editors and strategists.

    Squire Sanders also represents Mr. Wallace, Mr. Woodfox, and a third client, Robert King, in a civil rights suit challenging Louisiana’s abusive use of solitary confinement as, among other things, cruel and unusual punishment. This case is currently set to go to trial in June 2014.

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