I can’t stop the tears right now. I am not sure if they are tears of joy or something else, some cemented emotion that mixes rage and sorrow and elation all at once. Sitting on the couch with a bit of breakfast, the patio door is open to the courtyard and the world beyond. Away from the partisan bickering of ideologues who, like so many of us, take the autonomy to come and go for granted, who never question the freedom imbued in every breath, Herman Wallace never knew those luxuries.
On Tuesday, Brian A. Jackson, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana ordered a dying Wallace released immediately from Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison, overturning his conviction for the murder of a prison guard in 1972. Wallace was placed in solitary confinement where he remained for 41 years. Wallace, now 71, is dying of liver cancer.
The circumstances of the guard’s murder were immediately in question. State witnesses against Wallace and two other men, dubbed the “Angola Three” were later discredited, and the physical evidence against the 3 may have been fabricated by authorities in retribution for efforts by the three to bring reforms and better living conditions to the prison. Judge Jackson granted Wallace’s petition over violations during the 1972 trial of his constitutional rights. It is notable that even the guard’s wife maintains that Wallace is innocent of the murder.
Wallace is now only hours from death in a New Orleans hospital. Still, the authorities in Louisiana at first defied the order by Jackson, who then threatened contempt charges if Wallace was not released immediately. That defiance underscores the malicious nature of the state authorities, a disturbing legacy played out more and more, and with greater and greater ambivalence to human dignity and constitutional rights across the nation.
But this piece is about the breath of freedom, which for Herman Wallace are only too few. And I know a little of what it means to lose freedom. Perhaps that is why this resonates so strongly, but I don’t know what it is like to face the retributive atrocity Wallace endured, borne from nothing more than vengeful authorities directly confronted with their own inhumanity.
And so I am watching this morning on “Democracy Now” the images of Mr. Wallace, all but hidden on the ambulance gurney. An oxygen mask covers his face, but his eyes are bright and filled with the light of freedom, if only realized a moment. But what struck and touched me most was that Wallace never conceded. He never gave up his dream, the right stolen from him, to be free. That it was realized for only a short time is both n injustice and an inspiration.
And the lesson learned from Wallace is that freedom is not a given, and is most imperiled by the state. It is our duty to humanity, our burden and our cause to champion freedom. Not a knee-jerk spasm that trades short term gain swathed in long term hypocrisy. Not the freedom that secures privilege and blessing for a few, but for the dignity of each person, on all colors, genders and religions. Let Herman Wallace be the face of that struggle, if you wish. He is but one of many millions around the planet and in this country. But stand for one just as you would stand for all.
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