Herman Wallace died early Friday in New Orleans, three days after gaining his freedom. Wallace had spent the previous 41 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana.
While already serving a 50-year sentence for armed robbery, Wallace was convicted of the murder of a prison guard in 1974, along with Robert King and Albert Woodfox. The men became known as the Angola 3 for spending most of their years in solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also called Angola. All of them claimed to be innocent.
On Tuesday a judge overturned Wallace's conviction on the grounds that he had been denied a fair trial because he was indicted by a grand jury comprised solely of men — in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
"He knew that it was wrong for women to be excluded from jury service," says attorney George Kendall, one of Wallace's advocates. "And there were many times he sat in his cell mystified as to, 'why is it that I'm not getting relief on this claim?' This has been a very bittersweet week."
Wallace spent the first 18 years behind bars without an appeal. The argument that finally won Wallace his release was one he had been making for decades, mostly acting as his own attorney.
Kendall says little has changed for many indigent prisoners over the past 40 years, despite a change in laws.
As for the other two of the Angola 3, Woodfox is still in jail, but King was released in 2001 after 29 years in solitary confinement.
"The cells were pretty bare, and they were maybe about ... 3 feet wide and about 6 feet long. It was almost like it was in a tomb, and there was a slab of concrete that you slept on," King says. "You ate three meals a day — you had two slices of bread each meal. During the wintertime, you froze, and during summertime, you were overheated. But in any event, you were starved."
In 2009, Wallace was transferred to a prison dormitory where he could socialize with other prisoners. Even though he was returned to solitary after nine months, Kendall says Wallace was grateful for that opportunity and for his release Tuesday.
"It's tragic it took 40 years for him to find a court that would say, 'You're right, Mr. Wallace, that violated your Constitutional rights; you are entitled to a new trial,' " Kendall says.
Herman Wallace died of liver cancer. He was 71 years old.