From: "Claudia K. White, BS, CT" <Msdarkstar1@angelfire.com>
Sent: Saturday, March 10, 2001
The full text of the Gambit article about King does not appear on
the Gambit website, but here's a copy of the first half of it.
Y'all might want to visit the website yourself
(www.bestofneworleans.com/gw/news-feat.html) to see if the whole
text ends up in the Gambit archive. Also, there's a photo of King
you might want to see. Those of you who have met Althea's wonderful
4-year-old granddaughter Garyelle should enjoy the way the "little
artist" managed to get herself into the lead of this story. --Anita
PANTHER SPRUNG By Katy Reckdahl
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.
"I was being held in C-1 - they called it the Panther Tier," begins
Robert King Wilkerson, recalling Orleans Parish Prison in the early
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
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
In the December ruling (Wilkerson 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
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
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.
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