More Habeas Corpus – Woodfox v. Cain

Swamp at Night.jpeg

“What makes you think she’s a witch?”
“She turned me into a newt!”
“A newt?”
“I got better.”
“Burn her anyway!”

-Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Our last entry was about the writ of habeas corpus, used in the US primarily to get federal review of state actions, and the “narrowing of the federal courthouse door” caused by AEDPA (the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996).

Specifically, we looked at Lopez v. Smith, a US Supreme Court decision that came down in October of this year. Mr. Smith had complained that a state court ruling in his case violated the US Constitution. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed with Mr. Smith, but based its decision on Ninth Circuit case law. It thereby failed, in the opinion of the Supreme Court, to show that the state action violated 28 USC 2254(d)(1) (an AEDPA provision) by flouting “clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court . . .”

This week, we thought we’d look at an even more recent appellate opinion suggesting that the doorway – though narrowed – hasn’t been walled up altogether. The case is Woodfox v. Cain. That’s Albert Woodfox, an inmate of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, against Burl Cain, its warden (you’ll recall that a habeas corpus proceeding is very primal; you’re protesting your illegal imprisonment).

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decided the case on November 20th, focusing on an AEDPA provision that was little more than a footnote in Lopez v. Smith: 28 USC 2254(d)(2). This allows a habeas petition to be granted where a state court decision “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.”

Woodfox involved an alleged constitutional infirmity in the Louisiana grand jury system. As noted in a prior Supreme Court case, (Campbell v. Louisiana, cited in Woodfox) grand jury foremen in Louisiana were, in essence, extra members of the grand jury, personally chosen by the judge. African Americans were statistically under-represented when it came to being chosen as grand jury foremen. The US district court had ruled that

the state court was not entitled to AEDPA deference; that Woodfox had successfully made out a prima facie case of discrimination in the selection of the grand jury foreperson; and that the State of Louisiana, acting through Respondent- Appellant Warden Burl Cain, had failed to rebut the prima facie case.


The Fifth Circuit reviewed that ruling in a 37-page opinion: it went into minute procedural detail; it re-examined the district court’s findings, including its analysis of population statistics and the relative merits of one-tailed versus two-tailed statistical analysis; and it carefully cited Supreme Court precedent. And it ultimately concluded that the district court had been correct.

The State of Louisiana wasn’t pleased by this ruling, of course. The State Attorney General, Buddy Caldwell, has been quoted as saying that

The Appeals Court decision focused on a technicality with the grand jury selection process from as far back as 30 years ago. No court decision, including this one, has ever made a finding which disputes the fact that Albert Woodfox murdered Brent Miller at Angola in 1972. Those facts will always remain true.

No doubt they will remain true – if they ever were. But unfortunately, there’s very little reason to think that the findings in the original state prosecution were true.

In the first place, a racially tainted justice system isn’t just a ‘technicality’: the whole problem with a tainted proceeding is that there’s no way of knowing if the ‘facts’ found as the result of such a proceeding reflect in any way the truth.

In the second, the likelihood of Woodfox’s innocence isn’t just a theoretical possibility: apparently, there was never a lot of reason, in this case, to think the defendant was guilty. (We don’t hear Caldwell complaining, by the way, that it was only AEDPA’s ‘technicalities’ that kept the federal court from granting a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel.)

The video below is a segment from Democracy Now, broadcast on November 24, 2014. Additional material was posted on Democracy Now’s website as “Part 2“. This and other sources indicate that very few people – apart from those actually implicated in 40 years of mistreatment (Albert Woodfox has been in solitary confinement for most of that time) still claim that he’s guilty.