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Death in a bloody Southern prison

COLUMN ONE

A guard was stabbed, and two inmates paid with decades of virtual isolation. But new evidence and unusual alliances are emerging.

May 03, 2008|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

JEANERETTE, LA. — Thirty-six years have passed since she saw him last, but Leontine Verrett has never forgotten the face of the man she still calls her true love. His name was Brent Miller. He was lean and cocksure and strummed his guitar a little too loud.

Their romance blossomed on the grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the plantation turned prison built along a bend of the Mississippi River. He came from a clan where men had served as prison guards for generations. She was one of 12 children who moved there when their father got a job running the prison's sugar mill.

The lovers married on Feb. 5, 1972 -- he was 23, she was just 16. Two months later, the bride nicknamed Teenie got a call that there had been "an accident" at Angola, as the prison is known. She was a widow.

Miller had been stabbed 32 times and left in a prison dormitory in a pool of blood. Teenie's brother, who was also a guard, said Miller looked like he was wearing a red shirt. Horrified, he never returned to the job. Teenie soon learned that black militants stood accused of killing her husband, a random victim of what prison officials said was an inmate plot to murder a white man. She wanted the culprits to suffer and die. But unlike Miller's family, who crammed the courtrooms where the inmates were tried, she could not bear to sit and listen to the gruesome details.

"I didn't want to know," Verrett, now 52, said as her eyes misted up. "That was a lot to deal with at 17 years old. I trusted [the authorities] to do the right thing."

Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, Black Panthers from New Orleans who were serving time for armed robberies, were convicted of Miller's murder. The widow did her best to go on, moving to Jeanerette, an industrial town in the heart of Cajun country about two hours south of the prison. Two years later, she married Dean Verrett, who loved her despite her feelings for Miller, and they had three children. She began working at a beauty parlor, where she still works today.

Then 2 1/2 years ago, Billie Mizell, a legal investigator and fledgling author, showed up at Verrett's home near the banks of the Bayou Teche. She said she wanted to talk about Miller's murder.

What Mizell told Verrett stunned her. A bloody fingerprint found at the scene did not match Woodfox or Wallace. There was never any physical evidence linking them to the crime.

They'd been held in separate 6-by-9-foot cells for nearly every hour of every day. Supporters called their conditions solitary confinement; prison officials strongly disagreed. (The men were moved to a prison dormitory in March after nearly 36 years.)

Mizell said the star witness against Woodfox and Wallace, a repeat sex offender serving a life sentence, was promised freedom for his testimony -- a deal that the prosecution never disclosed to the defense. He was later transferred to another building where guards plied him with cigarettes, a prized jailhouse currency.

Verrett was skeptical. But she and Dean, who had also worked as an Angola guard, corroborated everything Mizell said by digging up court files and talking to friends and former co-workers.

After years of struggling with questions about the cold way prison authorities treated her when she sought compensation for her husband's death, issues she ignored as a teenager but that gnawed at her as an adult, she came to a troubling realization.

Maybe the militants, who had become an international cause celebre among liberal activists and human rights groups, were innocent.

"If I were on that jury," Verrett now says, "I don't think I would have convicted them."

The Louisiana State Penitentiary was infamous in the '60s and '70s as the bloodiest in the South, a place where guards routinely beat prisoners and inmates killed one another with crude knives. New Orleans musicians sang ominously about it like Greek poets evoking the underworld of Hades.

Called Angola after the birthplace of the slaves who worked there when it was a plantation, the prison drove inmates so hard that in 1952, 31 severed their own Achilles tendons in protest.

When Miller began working there two decades later, the guards were all white and the prisoners segregated. Wardens looked the other way when stronger inmates sold weaker ones as sex servants.

Wallace and Woodfox were part of a crew of socially conscious Black Panthers who challenged the Darwinian order by organizing opposition and telling victims they did not have to be "turned out," according to the two inmates and others who served in Angola at that time. That riled the prison strongmen as well as the guards, who let the sex trade flourish because it kept prisoners busy, inmates recalled.

"I had to fight corruption and the things being tolerated by the prison administration to control the population," Woodfox, 61, said in an interview. "When you saw the look on these kids' faces -- to see the spirit of another human being broken -- it affected the way you looked at life."

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