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Panther Sprung

Newly released 'Angola Three' inmate Robert King Wilkerson says that he's glad to be free -- and that he won't forget the two who remain in captivity.

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I was being held in C-1 -- they called it the Panther Tier," begins Robert King Wilkerson, recalling Orleans Parish Prison in the early 1970s.

He stops his story. A long-legged little girl with four ponytails skips over to the sofa. "Can I please have some chewing gum?" she asks politely, putting out her hand. He laughs and hands over a stick of gum from a front pocket of his jeans. She pops it in her mouth and bounces into a nearby armchair, next to a stack of her amoebae -like pen drawings -- portraits of Wilkerson and today's guest.

This little artist knows Wilkerson's face well, but not from seeing him here on her grandma's sofa. She knows Wilkerson's face from seeing his photo in the next room on a big poster that reads, "Free the Angola Three."

Wilkerson is a nationally known cause celebre, one of the famed Angola Three, a trio of longtime inmates who, back in the 1970s, organized and led the Angola chapter of the Black Panther Party. Supporters of the Angola Three say that Wilkerson -- along with his fellow Panthers Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace -- were handed lengthy terms for prison murders they did not commit.

Wilkerson is currently able to sit on a soft brown sofa and hand out chewing gum because he was released last month after spending 29 years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Almost all of those years were lived out in a 6-by-9-by-12-foot cell in what's called CCR (Closed Cell Restricted), the solitary confinement unit within Angola, where men remain in their cells for 23 hours a day. His comrades Woodfox and Wallace have been similarly held and remain there, sentenced for the murder of prison guard Brent Miller in 1972.

The Angola Three's prolonged confinements in CCR are thought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to be the longest of its kind in the U.S., perhaps in the world. As a result, the ACLU filed a civil complaint on their behalf in December in U.S. District Court, Middle District of Louisiana. The complaint charges prison officials -- including Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary Richard Stalder and seven Angola representatives -- with violating the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Stalder could not be reached by presstime for comment.

Early last month, however, on Feb. 8, Wilkerson's shackles and handcuffs were removed and he strode out of Angola into the fresh air. The state had offered Wilkerson a plea bargain because, say his supporters, a favorable United States Court of Appeals ruling in December had made it clear that Wilkerson was on a path to eventual release.

In the December ruling (Wilker-son v. Cain) by a three-judge panel, the two-judge majority commented on Wilkerson's trial and subsequent re-trial for the 1973 stabbing death of fellow inmate August Kelly. They note that a fellow inmate, Grady Brewer, had testified in 1997 that he had been the sole murderer of Kelly. And they commented on the rest of the case: "The state's only evidence that Wilkerson committed the crime was the eyewitness testimony of inmate William Riley who testified at both trials that he was standing within four to five feet of the altercation and witnessed Wilkerson stab Kelly. There was no physical evidence linking Wilkerson to the murder. Although eight knives were seized from the prisoners, the knife used to inflict the fatal wounds was never discovered. No fingerprints were found; no blood samples were taken."

Wilkerson contended that evidence showing that eyewitness Riley might have been "influenced" to testify against him should have been revealed at the trial. In its December ruling, the court agreed.

And so Wilkerson has found himself today in New Orleans, in the Bywater neighborhood, stopping by the house of his friend Althea Francois, a fellow Black Panther he'd met in the 1970s when he was in O.P.P. and she and her friend would visit every Sunday.

Wilkerson's visit today started out with a few poses by the Angola Three poster for a photographer who snapped a few shots and then looked up to ask whether Wilkerson wanted to appear serious or happy. "I can smile if you'd like," said Wilkerson.

"People say my whole appearance changed once I walked out of Angola, a burden was lifted off my shoulders," Wilkerson added. Then a serious look dropped over his face. "People ask me, 'Are you bitter?' I say, 'Hell, yeah, a person can't be -- pardon the expression -- dipped in shit and not come up smelling foul.' But I can clean myself off. I can rise above my bitterness; I cannot help my companions or anyone else by being bitter. I must, I shall rise above it."

Wilkerson, a Charity Hospital baby and New Orleans native, has been in the Louisiana prison system for nearly his entire life.

When Wilkerson was 15, he was "pulling capers" and generally getting into trouble. He was picked up in New Orleans on an armed-robbery charge and sent to the State Industrial School for Colored Youth, a juvenile prison located at Scotlandville, near Baton Rouge. He says he did not commit that specific crime, but acknowledges he was a kid on the wrong side of the law.

"My record would show I was 17 when I was released from Scotlandville," Wilkerson says. (This is a necessary clarification, he says, because, due to a typo, his birth certificate is nearly a year off. It shows he was born on May 3, 1943; he says his actual date of birth is May 30, 1942.)

He had barely arrived back in New Orleans before being grabbed again -- he matched the description of a suspect in an armed robbery. According to reports, two men had committed the robbery, but the New Orleans Police Department picked up four guys and charged all of them. "According to the records, I was close to 18 at the time," says Wilkerson. He was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor.

Most of his sentence was spent at Angola, although -- unlike his latest stay -- it was not in a cell, but in the main prison, in the general population. He cut sugar cane, dug irrigation ditches, cooked in the kitchen and then -- partly because he could type -- was chosen to be a clerk for the prison chaplain. He was released in January 1969 and once again came back to New Orleans. This time he worked at Garden Cemetery on Airline Highway, "digging graves and burying people," he says. On the side, he did a little boxing at the Municipal Auditorium under the name of Speedy King.

By early 1970, things were going well for Wilkerson. "I had managed to get myself a little truck; I was doing what they today would call recycling -- I was in the junk business. I did that until the time I was arrested in February 1970."

The charge this time was a stickup of a supermarket cashier in Uptown. "The description the cashier gave didn't even fit me," asserts Wilkerson, and so he thought that he would be released. Instead, he was found guilty. He says that his case is not unusual, especially for the time. No matter where you lived, he says, "the police and the DA were allowed to take evidence and shape it, form it, tailor it to fit the person who was charged."

Wilkerson was now 27 years old and had spent nearly half of his life in the prison system. But this time he wasn't going to peacefully serve out his time. "Many of us felt we were unjustly confined -- and the slaves have a right to rebel," he says.

Within a few months, he and 26 others would make a mass escape from O.P.P., using a guard's keys. Many of the inmates were caught that same night; Wilkerson was out for a few weeks before being recaptured and brought back to O.P.P. As a result of his escape, he was labeled a troublemaker and put on a higher-security tier. He says it was, in the end, a fortunate place to be, because Wilkerson met others who were perceived as troublemakers -- members of the Black Panther Party.

In September 1970, a few months after Wilkerson's escape and recapture, there was a highly publicized shootout in the Desire housing project. The tensions surrounded allegations that policemen had infiltrated the National Committee to Combat Fascism (NCCF), the cover name for the local Black Panther Party. Twelve Black Panthers, allegedly part of the shootout, ended up in the Orleans Parish Prison with Wilkerson.

Wilkerson recalls that he immediately felt "awe and respect" for his fellow prisoners. "They would hold political education classes. I wasn't an official member at that time, but when they spoke, they spoke for me. I was just as eager as anyone to see conditions change. The sewerage was real bad; rats and roaches were running around like they owned the place. Guys were sleeping on foam rubber mattresses, on the floor, on tables, in the hallways. If you were lucky you got an old Army blanket that had been used thousands of other times. And that was if you were lucky."

There was a prisoners' rights movement sweeping the country and the Black Panthers, says Wilkerson, brought that movement into O.P.P. "Guys who were eager to effect change weren't necessarily party sympathizers or members of the Black Panthers. But they knew that they were being treated badly. For me, Black Panther Party members helped articulate issues, lent a sort of legitimacy to my feelings."

Wilkerson worked with the Panthers and others to organize a hunger strike of 700 inmates. The organizers were all sent to a higher-security tier. It was there that he began writing, something he would continue in Angola's CCR unit. His work was published in the Black Panther Party newspaper. In 1971, he became an official member of the Black Panthers.

Upon his arrival at Angola in late April 1972, Wilkerson was immediately put into solitary confinement. "My record traveled with me, so they knew of my Black Panther involvement," he says. A guard had been murdered a few weeks earlier, he says, and prison officials were forcibly shaving Afros and otherwise cracking down on prisoners they deemed "political."

Wallace and Woodfox -- who had in 1971 started the first behind-bars charter chapter of the Black Panther Party -- would eventually be convicted of the guard's murder. The following year, Wilkerson -- their fellow Black Panther --was also charged and convicted of murder.

Despite their confinement in CCR, the three led hunger strikes, pressed for better conditions and education, and tried to stop prisoner rape, corruption by guards, and racial segregation within the prison. All three became adept jailhouse lawyers, working on their own cases and helping out hundreds of other prisoners.

The members of the Angola Three were most recently disciplined in May 1999 for inciting a hunger strike. They were moved for nine months to an even more punitive area in Angola called Camp J, where, describes Wilkerson, "You're not allowed a sweatshirt or jacket in the winter -- only the white prison-issue jumpsuit, a few pairs of boxer shorts, a couple of T-shirts. You have no television and no contact visits -- only visitors behind a heavy screen."

These days, a newly freed 58-year-old Wilkerson is staying with relatives in Marrero, and is weighing his options, which may include a speaking tour. In a day and age when some so-called radicals turn away from their past or call themselves "former Black Panthers," he holds to his ideals. He puts his left hand on his heart and earnestly looks straight forward. "My commission now is to fight for prison reform," he says. "Here's what I said right away: 'I may be free from Angola, but Angola will never be free from me.'"

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