November 4, 2019
(NEW YORK) — Laura Sullivan is an investigative journalist who has won many awards throughout her career for reporting on the disadvantaged. In 2008, she received a Peabody Award for her three-part story “36 Years of Solitary: Murder, Death and Justice on Angola,” where she revisited the case of two men, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, who were convicted of murdering a prison officer. Sullivan’s report shines a light on old and new evidence to the case, questioning if Wallace and Woodfox were actually responsible for the crime.
Summary of Part 1: Doubts Arise About 1972 Angola Prison Murder
In the first part of the series, Sullivan thoroughly describes the environment inside Angola Prison in Louisiana, and the murder of 23-year-old correctional officer Brent Miller in 1972.
The Angola Prison property is almost the size of Manhattan. Prisoners lived in their cells while prison officers and their families lived in their own homes, some with pools and gardens. Prisoners were often asked to mow lawns, paint, and farm. Even though both parties lived near each other, Sullivan learned through her interviews with deputy wardens and former inmates that the prison was corrupt and violent. Officers often abused and raped inmates. There was a war brewing between the officers and inmates and one day tensions erupted in chaos.
On April 17, 1972, Miller was stabbed to death with a lawnmower blade. The officers rounded up over 200 inmates, abused them, and questioned them until they got answers. One prisoner told officers that he witnessed Wallace and Woodfox killing Miller. Wallace and Woodfox were convicted of the murder by 12 jurors, even though many would argue that there was not enough evidence to convict them of the crime. A judge sentenced them to life in prison and they were put into solitary confinement at Angola for 36 years.
Lesson Learned: Set Up the Scene
In all investigative reporting, it is important to set the scene of where your investigation takes place. Sullivan does this in great detail, which allows readers to visualize life on the inside.
Summary of Part 2: Favors, Inconsistencies Taint Angola Murder Case
In the second part of the series, Sullivan guides readers through the aftermath of the murder. She gathers information from court records and interviews with Miller’s wife, former inmates, former deputy officers, and a former juror. What she learned was astonishing. Inmates were rounded up and beaten until they got answers but none of the white inmates were questioned. One inmate, Hezekiah Brown, who was allegedly notorious for lying, changed his story and admitted to witnessing the murder in exchange for a pardon. Brown testified at trial explaining how he was making coffee for Miller when the men burst in and stabbed Miller to death, which was not true. Two other witnesses that claimed to have seen Wallace and Woodfox running from the crime scene recanted.
Lesson Learned: Interview Everyone and Research Everything
It is crucial to tell all the accounts of the story and double-check facts to avoid any potential legal issues. Sullivan interviews both officers and former inmates and even Miller’s family. Through her interviews and research, she began to uncover a deeply flawed investigation and learned that some witness’ accounts may have been fabricated.
Summary of Part 3: Why Did Key Angola Witness Go To The ‘Dog Pen’?
In the third part of this series, Sullivan tracks down Colonel Nyati Bolt, a former Angola inmate, who lives off of the grid. Bolt told the guards 36 years ago that he was with Woodfox when Miller was murdered and nowhere near the crime scene. Because of his admission, the prison guards sent Bolt to solitary confinement. Bolt also went on to testify at Wallace and Woodfox’s trial.
Lesson Learned: Hunt for Answers
Sullivan heard of Bolt’s account and knew that he would be a critical interview. Even though he was off the grid, she found her way to his home through the inmates she interviewed. For investigative journalism, it is important to think outside of the box and take extra steps in your reporting since oftentimes, this will be when the most fascinating details come to light.