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Woodfox v. Cain

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

June 8, 2015



JAMES J. BRADY, District Judge.

Before this Court is the pending Motion (doc. 279) for Rule 23(c) release of Petitioner, Albert Woodfox. Briefs were filed in response to this motion and were considered by this Court. Subsequently, a motion hearing on this matter was held before this Court on March 2, 2015.

Procedural Background

This case is riddled with a complex history of fact and procedure. As previous opinions have thoroughly recited the history, this ruling recaps only that which is relevant to the issue of Mr. Woodfox's release. In 1972, Mr. Woodfox was an inmate at Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where he was serving a fifty-year-sentence for armed robbery. In April of 1972, Brent Miller, a prison guard at the penitentiary, was killed. Mr. Woodfox was charged as one of the assailants, and shortly after, he was placed in solitary confinement pending trial. Mr. Woodfox was originally convicted of second degree murder in 1973, but that conviction was later overturned during state post-conviction proceedings on several grounds.[1] On May 27, 1992 the Louisiana Eighteenth Judicial District Court found that Mr. Woodfox was "denied his constitutional right of effective assistance of counsel."[2] Mr. Woodfox's conviction of March 7, 1973 was reversed on the grounds that the "conviction was obtained on the basis of an unconstitutional indictment." Id. Mr. Woodfox was then indicted for the second time in 1993 and tried for the second time in 1998. The 1998 trial also resulted in a conviction for second degree murder. After exhausting all state level direct appeals, Mr. Woodfox began pursuing post-conviction relief at the state level. Mr. Woodfox failed to obtain relief from the state district post-conviction court. Mr. Woodfox then filed a writ application with the Louisiana First Circuit, which was denied on August 8, 2005, and then with the Louisiana Supreme Court, which was denied on September 29, 2006.

The current case surrounds Mr. Woodfox's petition for federal habeas corpus relief, which was filed on October 11, 2006. Mr. Woodfox made several claims for relief in his petition. This Court adopted the magistrate judge's report and granted his petition on multiple grounds, namely that defense counsel in the 1998 trial was ineffective (doc. 48). The State appealed to the Fifth Circuit, which vacated this Court's initial judgment based upon the highly deferential review mandated by Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"). On remand, this Court then considered the remaining grounds asserted for habeas corpus relief, namely discrimination in the selection of the grand jury and its foreperson. This Court then granted habeas relief on this ground, and the State appealed to the Fifth Circuit. On November 20, 2014, the Fifth Circuit affirmed this Court's granting of habeas relief and issued a mandate to this effect on February 11, 2015 (doc. 281). In its mandate, the Fifth Circuit remanded the case back to this Court "for further proceedings consistent with [its] opinion" (doc. 281, at 39). The State filed a petition for certiorari with the United States Supreme Court, appealing the Fifth Circuit's mandate, April 27, 2015.

The release of a successful habeas petitioner, like Mr. Woodfox, is before this Court in two different respects. First, in defining his habeas relief, this Court considers releasing Mr. Woodfox by ordering a writ, unconditional or conditional, of habeas corpus. Second, the State seeks a stay of any order releasing Mr. Woodfox and barring retrial pending an appeal by the State. In the meantime, in a preemptive strike, the State has had Mr. Woodfox rearrested and reindicted. Mr. Woodfox sits indicted for a third time for the charge of murder surrounding the killing of Brent Miller in 1972. For reasons explained below, it should be stressed that Mr. Woodfox's third state indictment is not before this Court for review. The two issues argued, orally and in writing, before this Court concern the habeas corpus relief Mr. Woodfox first sought in this Court in 2006.


A. Defining Habeas Corpus Relief under the Jurisprudence

The Supreme Court has long instructed that habeas corpus relief must be applied with an eye toward "the ends of justice." Sanders v. United States, 373 U.S. 1, 12, 83 S.Ct. 1068, 10 L.Ed.2d 148 (1963). It also has recognized that federal courts have "broad discretion" in fashioning an appropriate remedy upon a grant of habeas corpus relief. Hilton v. Braunskill, 481 U.S. 770, 775, 107 S.Ct. 2113, 95 L.Ed.2d 724 (1987). The general habeas corpus statute, 28 U.S.C. ยง 2243, authorizes district courts to dispose of a habeas petition "as law and justice require." Indeed, "a federal court possesses [the] power to grant any form of relief necessary to satisfy the requirement of justice." Levy v. Dillon, 415 F.2d 1263, 1265 (10th Cir. 1969) (emphasis added). It is far more common for a habeas court granting relief to issue a conditional writ. Generally, courts "allow for the release of a prisoner subject to the state's right to detain him on the underlying indictment." Jones v. Cain, 600 F.3d 527, 541 (5th Cir. 2010). Of course, the underlying constitutional violation found in this case stems from the discriminatory selection of a grand jury foreperson. Therefore, detaining Mr. Woodfox on what has been found to be an invalid indictment is not a just option for the State.

While less common, the broad discretion granted to a federal habeas court gives it the power to award a particularly "extraordinary remedy": an order that unconditionally releases the habeas petitioner from custody and bars any retrial in state court. Lopez v. Miller, 915 F.Supp.2d 373, 432 (E.D.N.Y. 2013) (quoting Simmons v. Reynolds, 898 F.2d 865, 869 (2d Cir. 1990)). Federal habeas courts extend such an extraordinary remedy in the rarest of circumstances, including, but not limited to, the following situations:

(1) where the act of retrial itself would violate petitioner's constitutional rights, for example, by subjecting him to double jeopardy; (2) where a conditional writ has issued and the petitioner has not been retried within the time period specified by the court; and (3) "where the petitioners had served extended and potentially unjustifiable periods of incarceration before the writ was granted."

Lopez, 915 F.Supp.2d at 432-33 (quoting Morales v. Portuondo, 165 F.Supp.2d 601, 609 (S.D.N.Y. 2001)). The Fifth Circuit has identified two categories of rare and extraordinary cases where "law and justice" require the permanent discharge of a petitioner: either the circumstances of the case involve a "constitutional violation [that] cannot be remedied by another trial" or "other exceptional circumstances [must] exist such that the holding of a new trial would be unjust." Jones v. Cain, 600 F.3d 527, 542 (5th Cir. 2010) (quoting Capps v. Sullivan, 13 F.3d 350, 352-53 (10th Cir. 1993). In Jones, the Fifth Circuit focused on the first category considering the "nature of the constitutional violation and whether it could theoretically be remedied by a new trial, or whether the very act of holding a new trial would be unjust" (doc. 309, at 12). At least one other court has relied on the Jones ruling as laying out two alternatives grounds that would justify an unconditional writ barring retrial. Wilson v. Beard, 2012 WL 1382447, *12 (E.D. Pa. April 20, 2012) (citing Jones, 600 F.3d 542). This Court, too, finds that the language in Jones provides two alternative grounds for granting the extraordinary remedy of an unconditional writ of habeas corpus barring retrial.

i. First Alternative: Retrial Cannot Remedy Underlying Constitutional Violation

This Court has previously determined that Mr. Woodfox's petition should be granted on the grounds of discrimination in the selection of the grand jury foreperson, and this ruling has been affirmed by the Fifth Circuit (doc. 274). Considering this constitutional violation, this Court must ask whether the violation is one that cannot be remedied by the prosecution of Mr. Woodfox for a third time. Neither side cites a case where a federal habeas court has barred re-prosecution of a state conviction obtained through the discriminatory selection a of a grand jury foreperson. This Court must look to cases exercising the extreme remedy on other grounds for guidance. Obviously, a retrial should not be allowed if it "would unavoidably result in the recurrence of the very same underlying constitutional violation." Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 667 (1982) (relief granted for violation of Sixth Amendment speedy trial right)). Here, the 1993 indictment could, conceivably, be corrected by the re-arrest and reindictment of Mr. Woodfox.[3]

ii. Second Alternative: Exceptional Circumstances Exist such that Holding a New Trial would be Unjust

The second alternative requires consideration far more broad than looking to the underlying constitutional violation. The scope of consideration expands to all exceptional circumstances surrounding this case. This Court's analysis considers a number of the rare cases that have granted the extraordinary remedy, the circumstances surrounding Mr. Woodfox case that he proposes are exceptional and justify the extraordinary remedy, and the arguments by the State for why such an extraordinary remedy is not warranted.

a. Cases Barring Retrial as a Remedy

The parties have failed to present any Fifth Circuit jurisprudence to show what circumstances are sufficient required to justify the issuance of an unconditional writ barring retrial. Nevertheless, in Jones v. Cain, the Fifth Circuit instructs federal habeas courts "to stop a state criminal proceeding" when "exceptional circumstances exist such that the holding of a new trial would be unjust." 600 F.3d 527, 542 (5th Cir. 2010) (internal citations omitted). Courts from other circuits have considered the totality of circumstances presented to them when defining habeas relief, and they have cited to Jones as supporting the court's power to consider exceptional circumstances. As such, the following cases provide guidance for this Court when considering the circumstances of Mr. Woodfox.

In Schuster v. Vincent, the Second Circuit opted to permanently discharge the petitioner after granting his writ of habeas corpus. 524 F.2d 153 (2d Cir. 1975). There was no question of petitioner's guilt in Schuster, as to killing his wife and injuring her attorney during divorce negotiations. In 1941, ten years into serving his sentence, petitioner was transferred from state prison to a state hospital for the insane "in apparent retaliation for his efforts to expose prison corruption." Id. at 154. In 1969, nearly thirty years after this transfer, the Second Circuit found that the procedures for involuntarily transferring the petitioner were constitutionally defective. U.S. ex rel. Schuster v. Vincent, 410 F.2d 1071, 1081 (2d Cir. 1969). It was then, when the Second Circuit ordered petitioner's transfer back to prison for the holding of a parole hearing. Id. at 1089. It took another three years before the petitioner was actually transferred to a prison for sane inmates. U.S. ex rel. Schuster v. Vincent, 524 F.2d 153, 154 (2d Cir. 1975). Even when the petitioner was transferred back to a prison for the sane, it was "orchestrated in a matter that thwarted [defendant's] 31-year effort to compel the State publicly to acknowledge his sanity and its own prior grave errors." Id. When the petitioner sought habeas relief, the State objected to the issuance of an unconditional writ because, under the operative state law, persons convicted of murder were ineligible for absolute discharge before completing five years of unrevoked parole. Id. at 155. Notwithstanding this objection, the Second Circuit ordered a permanent discharge of the petitioner, who was then seventy-years-old at that time. Id. at 162.

As the State points out, there were other additional factors involved in Schuster, namely that the State delayed implementing the court's mandate to transfer the petitioner back to prison for three years. Id. at 161. Mr. Woodfox concedes that Schuster does not rely explicitly on the exceptional circumstances doctrine (doc. 306, at 28), but it did look to all of the extraordinary circumstances of the case in ultimately granting extraordinary relief. Schuster, 524 F.2d at 159. Regardless, it is clear that the Second Circuit considered a number of factors, many of which are comparable to Mr. Woodfox's circumstances.

In Morales v. Portuondo (" Morales II "), a decision preceding the Jones "exceptional circumstances" test established by the Fifth Circuit, the court delineated a federal court's power to bar retrial for a successful habeas petitioner in a similar fashion to the categories in Jones :

(1) where the act of retrial itself would violate petitioner's constitutional rights, for example, by subjecting him to double jeopardy; (2) where a conditional writ has issued and the petitioner has not been retried within the time period specified by the court; and (3) "where the petitioners had served extended and potentially unjustifiable periods of incarceration before the writ was granted."

165 F.Supp.2d 601, at 609 (quoting Latzer v. Abrams, 615 F.Supp. 1226, 1230 (E.D.N.Y.1985)); see, e.g., United States ex rel. Schuster v. Vincent, 524 F.2d 153, 154, 158, 162 (2d Cir.1975).[4] The underlying constitutional defect found by the habeas court in Morales II was that the trial court had declined to order a new trial in the face of evidence suggesting that another person made statements confessing to the crime and exonerating the petitioner. Id. at 602, citing Morales v. Portuondo, 154 F.Supp.2d 706 (S.D.N.Y.)(" Morales I "). In Morales II, the habeas court considered several factors before barring re-prosecution as part of the petitioner's relief: the evidence suggesting petitioner's innocence, the underlying constitutional defect that could not be corrected given the fifteen year lapse in time, evidence of troubling conduct by the State, and the potentially unjustified periods of incarceration. 165 F.Supp.2d at 609.

The State urges that Morales II is inapposite to Mr. Woodfox's case because petitioner-Morales had a "compelling claim of actual innocence" (doc. 309, at 17). Mr. Woodfox relies on Morales II because he finds his case comparable on the grounds of prejudice by the time delay, evidence of troubling conduct by the State, and potentially unjustified periods of incarceration, and for evidence of Mr. Woodfox's innocence. Nevertheless, it is clear ...

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