WEST FELICIANA PARISH, La., Feb. 19 (UPI) -- The last remaining incarcerated member of the so-called "Angola Three" was released in Louisiana Friday after serving a sentence that placed him in solitary confinement for four decades -- which is perhaps the longest stretch of correctional isolation ever spent by any prisoner in American History.
Prior to his release Friday, Albert Woodfox retroactively pleaded no contest to charges of manslaughter and aggravated burglary in connection with the death of a prison guard at the Louisiana State Penitentiary -- also known as Angola -- in 1972.
At the time, Woodfox and another politically-active inmate -- Herman Wallace -- were implicated in the guard's death, put on trial and convicted. The convictions only served to lengthen their sentences, since they were already inmates serving time for armed robbery when 23-year-old corrections officer Brent Miller was stabbed to death.
A third inmate, Robert Hillary King, was also a member of the "Angola Three" but was placed in solitary for an unrelated conviction.
In the decades that followed, though, the merit of the men's convictions was increasingly called into question. Woodfox had been convicted twice for the crime and was facing a third prior to Friday's release.
Criminal courts overturned Woodfox's conviction multiple times over the years, only to see it reinstated by a higher court on appeal. The dismissals were based on the argument that Woodfox was not adequately represented at trial, and that racial discrimination had played at least some part in the jury selection process.
Defense attorneys have argued recently that since it would be impossible for Woodfox, who turned 69 years old Friday, to receive a fair trial now -- in part because all of the pertinent witnesses in the case are dead -- he, should be released.
All three men spent a great deal of time in solitary confinement at the penitentiary after their convictions. Woodfox spent about 40 years there for 23 hours a day in a nine-by-six-foot cell, at the insistence of the prison's former warden.
Woodfox was never connected to the guard's death by any physical evidence and he has long denied being the one who caused Miller's death.
"There's forces beyond your control," Woodfox said Friday as he left Angola. "There's not a lot you can do."
Woodfox finally gained his release through a plea agreement with state prosecutors -- who insisted he plead no contest to the manslaughter and an unrelated robbery charge. The terms of the plea agreement included a 42-year prison sentence for Woodfox -- and since he has already served longer than that penalty calls for, he was released.
His defense attorney, though, emphasized Friday that the no contest plea does not represent an admission of guilt.
"It means simply that [Woodfox] does not contest that the State would present evidence at a new trial from witnesses who said he committed this crime. Mr. Woodfox continues, as he always has, to maintain his innocence," attorney George Kendall said.
In fact, even the guard's widow, Teenie Rogers, said last year that locking up Woodfox was a miscarriage of justice.
"I think it's time the state stop acting like there is any evidence that Albert Woodfox killed Brent," she said. "After a lot of years looking at the evidence and soul-searching and praying, I realized I could no longer just believe what I was told to believe by a state that did not take care of Brent when he was working at Angola and did not take care of me when he was killed."
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, however, painted Friday's plea and subsequent release as the result of a successful prosecution that holds Woodfox liable for the guard's murder.
"As it stands today -- our team of prosecutors believes this plea is in the best interest of justice," he said. "Today's plea brings closure to the family of Brent Miller, justice for the people of Louisiana, and finality to this decades-long prosecution."
"I hope the events of today will bring closure to many," Woodfox stated.
Woodfox is believed to have served the longest sentence in solitary confinement of any inmate in United States history -- about 44 years, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported Friday.
Through it all, Woodfox remained locked up -- and substantially barred from having much human interaction.
Some advocates believe that, as members of the prison's Black Panther party during the heightened civil rights climate in the early 1970s, the "Angola Three" were unjustly accused and convicted in an effort to ensure their silence and stem the activist movements they encouraged among the general prison population.